Aug. 8, 2008 performance reviewed by Frances Benn Hall.
Plays about dysfunctional families seem to be audience pleasers in this “season of our discontent.” Witness August, Oshage County running off with all the theatre awards in Manhattan. And the world premier of Christine Whitley’s The Goat Woman of Corvis County, at Shakespeare and Company’s new Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre joins the pack.
Whitley’s play is a variation on the mode and might be labeled Contemporary Southern Gothic. It is set in rural Tennessee and full of echoes of Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, in which maimed and limited humans are extremely funny but pain us with their tortured limitations and vulnerability. Other echoes from Sam Shepard and even the wilder plays of Tennesee Williams seem woven into its intricate texture and its ability to slip in and out of time and space.
The action is in-your-face realism and your bleacher seat so pulls you into the play that you can smell the bacon sizzling on the stove and the coffee brewing in the pot. The escalating violence is so threateningly real one feels impelled to step in and attempt to stop it.
The plot centers around Charlotte (Keira Naughton), a thirty-four year old woman who lives in an improvised barn loft home with her fifth husband Randy (Thomas Kee) and David (David Rosenblatt), her teen-aged son from a previous marriage. Charlotte is fey in having an unusual ability to heal sick and wounded goats. (One she has saved and nurtured resides in the unseen lower levels of her barn home.)
She also has a dark secret in her past and a very current legal problem which brings on stage John (Daniel Berger-Jones), a fledgling lawyer from Nashville.
The three family members dominate the play, tormented, wounded, violent and, at times, ruefully funny in their tortured entanglements that involve physical abuse and suffering. Their skillful acting pulls you onto the stage, even though you would rather not be there.
The well acted lawyer role is minor in only developing Charlotte’s complex character and her ways of using sex to achieve her goals. Berger-Jones, playing the only “sane” character in the plot, handles it with skill.
As written, the play, although occurring mainly in the present, slides very skillfully into past moments in Charlotte’s life that are so pivotal they should be allowed to accrue as the playwright lets them and not be anticipated by this review. They are aided by a magnificent light complex that studs the entire theatre’s ceiling.
Let it suffice that the actors are wonderful. Naughton inhabits her mercurial character with dynamic power giving us a woman who loves her wayward son but cannot show it, fears but puts fear behind her, uses her beauty to her advantage and almost destruction, and has spent a life mired in a limited educational background, one in which all she possesses and values is her beauty and longing for beautiful clothes and maybe even a home worthy of living in. In the complex role emerges a sympathetic character.
As do, surprisingly, Kee and Rosenblatt in theirs.
Kee’s role is also a complex one, seemingly unsympathetic at first, driven by forces that we do not understand, he can be, as we see in the second act, something much more. He is equally driven, equally involved, equally vulnerable.
While in a secondary role, but still vital one, Rosenblatt may utter the most four letter words in the play (convincingly), he has a vital scene in the second act in which one wants for him the love and understanding his misguided mother also wants to show but does not know how.
And crazy as it seems, at the very ending of this tortured and torturing play, there seems to be hope, probably still of a southern gothic kind, but still hope.
This is a play to experience more than once to enjoy. And the intimacy of the current seating arrangement of the flexible new theatre space the Bernstein supplies is a suitable setting for it. Set designer Susan Zeeman Rogers has worked creatively with the seeming limitations of the stage space; Mathew Miller has provided skilled lights for the time and mood changes; Bill Barclay’s music supports, as do Govane Lohbauer’s costumes.
I find this a good production rather than a great one. But the play as a world premier is still searching, the author is young and talented, and the opportunities of the acting space are still to be explored.
Meanwhile a talented director, Robert Walsh, has brought us a challenging evening at Shakespeare and Company.