Dark Christmas

Rhonda Hallquist is brilliant in LTW's harrowing 'Reckless'

We're just heading into Thanksgiving weekend, but over at Live Theatre Workshop, Christmas has come early. For LTW's newest production, Craig Lucas' Reckless, set designers Richard and Amanda Gremel have painted the stage a shiny, shellacked blue. It looks like it's been covered with wrapping paper.

This sets the tone for Reckless, which begins on Christmas Eve. As perpetually cheerful Rachel (Rhonda Hallquist) babbles to husband Tom (Cliff Madison) about her love for the holidays, he breaks down and confesses that he has taken out a contract on her life. The hit man is about to arrive, and Rachel must flee now if she wants to live.

If this sounds like an intriguing situation, don't get attached. This is merely the start of Rachel's long journey down the rabbit hole, as she stumbles from one absurd situation to the next.

After she escapes her home—leaving her husband and two young sons behind—Rachel meets up with Lloyd (Keith Wick) and his deaf, wheelchair-bound girlfriend, Pooty (Debbie Hamid-Runge). This pair becomes Rachel's new family until various crazy events—a murderous boss, a TV game show—cause her to run away once more.

Some productions suggest that these wild happenings are all a dream. Sabian Trout, director of the LTW staging, doesn't take this interpretation, but the play itself does operate with a certain dreamlike logic. Outrageous occurrences are accepted at face value, and each situation can change radically at any moment.

Actors Madison, Hamid-Runge, David Zinke and Lisa Mae Roether all take on multiple parts (Madison plays Rachel's husband, as well as her son and female boss, for example), a casting choice that adds to the play's dreamlike quality. Even so, Trout keeps the pace fast; shifts between scenes are conveyed economically, with minimal props and scenery.

Reckless premiered in 1983, five years before Lucas wrote Prelude to a Kiss, the romantic drama for which he is perhaps best known. (Alec Baldwin and Meg Ryan starred in the 1992 film.)

Reckless is a stranger, more-difficult piece than Prelude. Still, the play is regularly revived, and it clearly strikes a chord with audiences. The character of Rachel may be what accounts for Reckless' enduring appeal: The part is terrific, and Hallquist attacks it with gusto. Her performance has warmth, humor and as much naturalism as the comedy will allow. Her Rachel has a genuine reaction to each bizarre situation.

Early on, Rachel is required to wear a Christmas-themed nightgown. Costume designer Desiree Romo makes it delightfully over the top. Decorated with rows of shiny baubles, it telegraphs Rachel's character before she ever opens her mouth. Rachel is, of course, never silent for long. Yet her cheerful, garrulous nature is continually put to the test by the play's cruel events, and she turns to various therapists (played by Roether) for help. These shrinks don't offer much; one assumes that the episodes Rachel is recounting must be dreams, and another suggests that her troubles all stem from birth trauma.

In her director's notes, Trout writes that playwright Lucas "was abandoned as a baby—literally left on the backseat of a parked car at an Atlanta gas station, with a note pinned to him. Reckless is a dark comedy about a fantastic series of events which could provoke a loving mother to abandon her children." Interesting, but the play doesn't leave the audience with any real understanding of what motivated Rachel to leave her own children, perhaps because they don't figure prominently until the end of the play. Plus, everything that happens is so inexplicably terrible that the question of realistic psychological motivation feels beside the point.

So do we accept the absurdist premise as a given, and just enjoy the play as a darkly comic romp? Or do we read it as a psychological allegory about a mother's desires to abandon her family? Neither the play nor the production makes this clear.

On opening night, the mood of the audience was divided. Approximately half the crowd laughed uproariously and leapt to its feet, anxious to applaud Hallquist's remarkable comic performance. Among those who remained seated, there were perplexed expressions and comments such as, "I'm confused," and, "Wait, was her husband also her son? I don't understand."

I found myself more in sympathy with the second group. But if you think you're likely to have the first reaction, go ahead and treat yourself to Reckless. Hallquist's performance is certainly worth the price of admission.

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