THE O'CONNER GIRLS
Seattle Repertory Theatre; ends Sat., April 10
Thanks to salt-of-the-earth performances and sensitive direction by Christine Sumption, noted local actor Katie Forgette's puckish drama about an Irish family reunion is an affecting, amusing evening out—despite exposition as clunky as a car with square wheels and Forgette's inability to concoct a plausible plot.
The play is effectively sitcom-quippy, and each of the O'Conner girls is positively radiant with small-town sweetness, which helps them brave the chill of Minneapolis and their remote pater familias, from whose funeral they have just returned. New widow Sarah O'Conner (Zoaunne LeRoy) has big plans to tour Europe, but first she needs help sorting through some redolent old clothes and family secrets. Much-married realtor daughter Liz (Cynthia Lauren Tewes) is back from California, knocking back Wild Turkey while knocking dear dead emotionally AWOL Dad. Liz's sister Martha (Kate Purwin), who stayed home to tend dying Dad and sad Sarah, tries to make nice, as she has all her life. Martha laments her past as a plain wallflower wilting in Liz's shadow; Liz laments that her man-magnet past is past. Operatically eccentric Aunt Margie (brash, broad Laura Kenny) tries to rally everyone's spirits like a sweetly bullying yell queen.
The chuckles are gentle but genuine, and though the heartaches are sketchily conceived, they're played well enough. When Sarah bewails her sexless Catholic marriage, it's abstract, abruptly brought up, and pasted onto the character, but LeRoy gives the sometimes iffy lines authentic undertones of poignant regret. Tewes gives Liz fizz, and Purwin's rueful, self-knowing air keeps the self-effacing Martha from coming off as a drab doormat.
Forgette is best at monologues, rants with two feet firmly planted, and the other characters standing listening. She can't make the talk and action flow convincingly though, a flaw at times exacerbated in the production by small fluffs and pauses. Nor can Forgette imagine men: When the young shut-in to whom Martha and Liz used to read Jane Eyre in their youth reappears, all grown up into a hunky, single, saintly pediatric oncologist (Hans Altwies), the character is like Keanu Reeves in Something's Gotta Give—a 2-D projection of female need. There's also a vaguely Glass Menagerie-like build up to an ostensibly unexpected kiss in the musty, old-lady's living room (an evocative Scott Weldin set, by the way), but you can't keep your eyes on the kissers, because it's so obvious that someone's about to emerge from the kitchen and discover them.
Even when the action falters or the dialogue clinks, however, the characters' integrity gets us past the bump and carries the moment. We're into these people and want to keep hearing them yearn and reminisce. Forgette is a flawed, promising writer with an ear, a heart, forgiving wit, and a feel for family dynamics. More plays, please. TIM APPELO
(L)IMITATIONS OF LIFE
Empty Space Theatre; ends Sat., April 17
Playwright Marcus Gardley and director Susan Finque (who conceived this show during her time with the old Group Theatre) go on a tear after Douglas Sirk's "socially conscious" 1959 film Imitation of Life, and they have one hell of an uproarious idea about how to bring it down: Take the Sirk movie, dip it in some Pirandello, and graft it onto Michael Frayn's farce-within-a-farce Noises Off. Too bad neither Gardley nor Finque know what to do with the thing once it's in pieces at their feet.
Sirk's Technicolor soaper contrasted the conventional romantic angst of single mother Lana Turner and daughter Sandra Dee with the more complex troubles of black maid Juanita Moore and daughter Susan Kohner. Frustrated, self-hating Kohner, who's determined to "pass" for white, envies pal Dee, and is ashamed of mother Moore's submissive acceptance of her place in the world. Gardley and Finque see trenchant comic mayhem in the outmoded idea of societal roles, and concoct a spoof in which a backstabbing troupe of players on some universal stage grow fed up with their assigned parts in Imitation and decide to enact whomever they want—regardless of race or gender. Nearly everyone wants to be Lana, even the actor playing studly love interest Steve (Nick Garrison): In the evening's best line, he enters center stage in a gown and proclaims, "Steve is the name my oppressors have given me."
Gardley and Finque are on to something here, and a great cast scrambles madly to make laughs from it. They sometimes succeed, especially when Gretchen Lee Krich's eerily apt decimation of Lana Turner comes up against the competitive onslaught of her co-stars. But the show never manages anything as funny or cutting as it ought to be, mainly because, like Book-It's current production of Cry, The Beloved Country, it botches the potential to shake us out of our complacency and settles instead for inviting us to applaud our own enlightened sensibilities . . . or do Gardley and company really think there's anyone in your average theater audience who hasn't considered that a Lana Turner movie might have a slightly limited grasp of reality?
Gardley and Finque spend most of the play trying to score easy points off of Sirk's inflated melodramatics without supplying anything particularly challenging in their place. The scattered songs, with music by Richard Gray, are essentially Schoolhouse Rock jingles, easily grasped lessons explaining concepts (the "Mammy" stereotype et al.) presumed to be heretofore unknown to their listeners. At least Sirk, however dated and overrated, was doing something slightly subversive by heightening the malaise of black protagonists in a movie featuring a gleaming white Hollywood goddess—the implications of which probably made quite a few popcorn munchers shift uncertainly in their seats back in 1959. But (L)Imitations doesn't have the balls to provide real discomfort. For all its madcap machinations with race and identity, the evening culminates with a sentimental spiritual in front of a slide-show tribute to black actresses stuck in second-banana roles. It's one thing to force an audience to examine its prejudices and presuppositions; it's quite another to ask it to get emotional about a head shot of Phylicia Rashad. STEVE WIECKING
DAISY IN THE DREAMTIME
Richard Hugo House; ends Sat., April 3
The history of colonial contact with the aboriginal population in Australia mirrors that of the devastation exacted upon the native peoples of the New World, with European settlers carting their uncouth diseases into the bush followed shortly by land-greedy policies of divide and conquer. In Australia, a crusader appeared in an unlikely figure: The real-life Daisy Bates was an Irish do-gooder who waged a one-woman war to protect the Aborigines—whom she referred to incessantly as "my people"—from the disastrous incursions of the Australian railroad.
The Daisy (Karen Jo Fairbrook) of Lynne Kaufman's drama is fond of addressing her audience directly in a booming Irish brogue, her cadences clipped with the staccato pulse of political outrage. As a technique for imparting crucial data, OK, but all that exposition makes her somehow less likable (though maybe that's the point—activism ain't no popularity contest). Much of the play trucks in the by-now familiar stuff of anthropological revision: how colonialists projected their own sexual insecurities on the native people; how the native people present a panacea to the vapid materialism of conquering Europe. That these critiques are completely valid does not, unfortunately, make them dramatically interesting. The play could have used a little more bite, something on the order of Joseph Conrad's darkening heart.
Of course, these are problems inherent to the play, and Golden Fish Theatre's production does what it can with the material. The small cast is uniformly solid and the pacing is flawless. Especially nice is the spare set design, composed of a chest and a few hunks of dried wood; the deep stage at Hugo House allows director Cynthia White to choreograph some nice sequences, staggering characters in a kind of ragged Greek chorus.
Things do deepen up a bit in the relationship between Daisy and Sister Annie Lock (Rachel Horner). The two characters grapple over their intentions toward the Aborigines, and it looks like the beginning of a beautiful relationship, full of halted longing and desperate pride—but the best of it happens in the last click of the final act. That would have been a great place to start, leaving everything else—all that canary-in-the-coal-mine stuff—to history. RICHARD MORIN
WITHOUT A NET
Consolidated Works; ends Sat., March 27
In a re-creation of the classic circus entrance, the performers parade into the space to the cheerful title music from The Triplets of Belleville. They probably chose the tune because of its antic, 1920s cabaret feel, but the loopy world of that film is an interesting contrast to this program of aerial performance: Animators can rewrite physics with their pens or their computer keyboards; human bodies need to work much harder to create the same effects.
With a shock of platinum hair andelegant, sleight-of-hand gestures, curator Tamara Dover (aka Tamara the Trapeze Lady) draws our attention away from the muscle mechanics involved. In her work with a "scarf"—a length of fabric hanging from the ceiling—she wraps herself in it as if it were haute couture, twined around her hips and looped over a foot. When she leans back in it like a hammock, and then opens it out like a butterfly, she resembles the early 20th-century scarf dancer Loie Fuller.
At the other end of the spectrum, Gabriela Milillo's work on the static trapeze is almost brazenly straightforward. In short, percussive phrases, she reels off a series of still poses, like a stop-action film, cutting each one off before her momentum can be transferred to the swing and disturb its equilibrium. She unfolds like a Jacob's Ladder toy, and then drops straight down, pulling up short before she hits the ground; watching her, we lurch forward to finish the drop.
Most of the show alternates between these two perspectives—either concealing the effort of flying, or laying out all the mechanics in a kind of anatomical "how-to" guide. In both of these options, though, the special effects are reassuringly human. SANDRA KURTZ