Crackling 'Thunder'

Dark comedy at Beowulf is both hilarious and heartfelt

It's shaping up to be another spectacularly tragic day for Emily Posten, the perpetually overburdened matriarch on the television soap opera What Is the Cause of Thunder?

According to a bad-news-bearing nun, Emily's favorite daughter has slipped into a coma again, the priest has touched the wee ones and all the animals have escaped from the zoo.

But wait, says the nun, there's more: "God died today."

Emily wails and flails about and finally drops dramatically to her knees. Prayer is pointless now, but what else can she do? It's her default response to outlandish misfortune.

It makes sense that Noah Haidle's dark comedy What Is the Cause of Thunder?, now onstage at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, has the same title as the soap opera. Thunder the play is about the interlocking worlds of the soap's fictional character Emily and the actress who has played her to the hilt for 27 years.

That actress, Ada (Susan Arnold), who considers herself the queen of daytime television, is losing her grip on reality even before she finds out that her character is being killed off. As Emily, she's stared down death at least five times previously. But this time is for real. There will be no miraculous resurrection six months from now.

Moments into the over-the-top opening scene, we recognize a hoary genre at work and the heart sinks just a little. Please don't let this play be a 90-minute soap opera spoof. Might as well slit my wrists now.

But the comedic gears shift smoothly in the next scene, which unfolds in the drab home Ada shares with her pitiful and very pregnant daughter Ophelia (Lucille Petty). Watching the traumatized young woman smoke a cigarette and apologize to her fetus for doing so, we know instantly that Haidle's play is shooting for something more substantial than mere soap spoofery.

Directed with a sure hand and playful spirit by Leslie J. Miller, What Is the Cause of Thunder? is beautifully served by a simple, seamless production design. The sets, costumes and lights work harmoniously without getting in the way. Even the Laurie Anderson music that accompanies the brief set changes is perfectly in tune with the play.

On opening night last Friday, the show provoked almost constant laughter. But the play also packs an emotional punch because of the tension between mother and daughter, truth and illusion, sickness and health.

Ophelia, like her scene-making mother and her Shakespearean namesake, is mentally unstable and too much alone. Even as she berates her mom for mixing her up with her fictional counterpart, she invites her own romantic delusions into the room.

Arnold, a veteran actress who directed Beowulf Alley's production of Glengarry Glen Ross last season, has plenty of fun with Ada's theatrics (her TV death scene is one for the ages). But because she never loses sight of the character's desperate emptiness and awful fear, the play-acting resonates on a deeper level. Arnold brings uncommon pathos to Ada's plight.

And you don't have to be a television star to relate. Because we all tend to tie our identity to our occupation, it's not hard to imagine how one's sense of self could be so threatened by the sudden loss of a job you love after 27 years.

If Ophelia and Ada/Emily were the only characters onstage, there would be plenty to see. But Petty, who plays Ophelia with daft humor and raw emotion, is also called upon to play several characters on the soap opera. She expertly slips into the role of Harper, who is forever slipping in and out of a coma, and vamps like a 1940s movie star as Bathsheba, Harper's evil twin.

If Petty seems supremely at home in Haidle's seriocomic world, never missing a beat as she switches from one character to the next, it might be because she's been there before. Three years ago, she earned glowing notices for her starring role as 4-year-old Lucy in Haidle's extra-dark comedy Mr. Marmalade.

Mr. Marmalade, which centered on Lucy's coke- and porn-addicted imaginary friend, is one of three Haidle plays produced in recent years by Etcetera, the late-night series at Live Theatre Workshop. The others were Kitty Kitty Kitty (about a suicidal cat and his clones) and Persephone.

Haidle's flair for black comedy, his ability to make audiences laugh even as they squirm, brings to mind the plays of his mentor, Christopher Durang (Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All for You and especially The Marriage of Bette and Boo, his 1985 masterwork).

Like Durang at his best, What Is the Cause of Thunder? finds the humanity in situations both ridiculous and macabre. In Beowulf Alley's hands, it's hilarious and heartfelt at the same time.