Dark vs. Light

Fine acting and a harrowing story mark two very different productions at Wilde and Invisible Theatre

Do you prefer plays that are ultralight or heavy and dark? Right now, you can choose either extreme, or both, on Tucson stages.

Invisible Theatre is running Bleacher Bums, a softball treatment of colorful fans in the stands of Wrigley Field. Wilde Playhouse is presenting Extremities, a tough consideration of the gray area between justice and revenge, triggered by an attempted rape. Bleacher Bums, even at 90 minutes, is twice as long as it should be, but the production is redeemed by fluid, assured acting. The cast of Extremities, in contrast, sometimes delivers flatter, not fully felt line readings, but the performances are good enough to serve the harrowing script.

Extremities is set in a farmhouse near New York City. One afternoon, a stranger bursts in and tries to rape one of the residents, Marjorie. After being humiliated and nearly smothered with a pillow, but before the actual rape occurs, Marjorie blinds her assailant with bug spray, binds him, chains him up in the fireplace with a noose around his neck, and occasionally jabs him with a poker while she decides what to do next.

You see, as the vicious and manipulative attacker (his name is Mike, but for most of the play Marjorie calls him "the animal") points out, there's no evidence--no bruises, no semen--to support whatever Marjorie might tell the police. The attacker could go free; meanwhile, Marjorie could conceivably be prosecuted for torturing the man, of which there is now substantial physical evidence. As the play begins, Marjorie has been stung by a wasp, which, as Mike reminds her, can live to sting again. Marjorie knows that if she doesn't kill her attacker, he will be back in her life, one way or another.

Before Marjorie can carry out her half-formed plan, her housemates come home. One, Terry, wants to have nothing to do with any of this; the other, Patricia, a social worker, tries to talk Marjorie into doing something rational and just, although as time goes on, reason and justice seem to be mutually exclusive prospects.

This is a terribly disturbing play; the attack scene, in particular, is almost unbearable to watch, and women with rape issues should think very carefully before buying a ticket. After that, we find ourselves rooting for torture and slow death; Mike is such an irredeemably vile figure that nothing else will do, especially since Marjorie is now in a position to suffer in the legal system, as well as at the hands of her attacker.

Yet how do we square our desire to see Marjorie give Mike what he deserves (we soon learn that he has done this sort of thing to many other women) with our outrage over, for example, the Abu Ghraib abuses? Well, we reason, Abu Ghraib was institutionalized and impersonal torture; Marjorie has a personal stake in seeing that Mike, who clearly can manipulate his way through any situation, including the courts, is taken out of play. But this is an emotional response, and is rationally inconsistent. Yet are there situations in which emotion should prevail over reason?

William Mastrosimone's script doesn't lay out the arguments in such a dry manner; this is a tense, compelling play from beginning to end, generally well-directed by Sabian Trout. The two discovery scenes, when the housemates individually discover Mike in the fireplace, fall oddly flat, but otherwise, everything stays reasonably taut. Nick Stielstra is very good at conveying Nick's almost childlike brutality and whiny self-absorption ("Now I know how Christ felt," he complains in the fireplace). As Marjorie, Janna Meiring is especially effective at the extremes of victim and avenger, with able support from Leslie J. Miller as Patricia and Tami Sutton as Terry.

In comparison, Bleacher Bums, originally a collaborative effort at Chicago's Organic Theatre Company organized by Joe Mantegna, seems awfully trivial and slow to start. First, I should point out that I am not one of those people who finds team sports even remotely interesting; the only reason I have ever gone near Wrigley Field is to investigate the abundant Ethiopian restaurants in the neighborhood. So the play's slice-of-life first half holds no appeal for me; it takes way too long to establish the personalities of and relationships between the eight major characters.

Things pick up in the second half, though, as those characters begin to interact with each other more than with the Chicago Cubs game they're attending. These are the die-hard Cubs fans (and one anti-fan) who populate the cheap seats all summer long, cheering on the home team despite its habitually dismal performance after the initial spring games. We have a young, ever-optimistic blind man (Brian Patrick McGrath) who listens to the play-by-play on a transistor radio but prefers the camaraderie of the bleachers, a regular-guy professional (Jeff Scotland), an older working-class fellow (Manny Ferris) who blows his money on unwise bets, his scolding but baseball-savvy wife (Glenda Young), a sleazy operator (Michael Woodson) who makes plenty of cash betting against the Cubs, an insufferable nerd (J. Grant Reed) who unadvisedly begins to regard Woodson's character as a role model, an irrepressible cheerleader (Elliot Glicksman), and a distractingly attractive woman (Carrie Hill) whose main purpose in the bleachers seems to be getting a tan and polishing her nails.

The actors, directed by Yolanda Miller, do such a fine job of bringing their characters to life that you can sometimes forget what a weak play they're in. Ultimately, seeing Bleacher Bums must be like attending a Cubs game: You root for the team in front of you, even though you suspect their efforts are futile.

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