Women in Transition

Etcetera and the Rogue Theatre both turn in respectable performances of difficult plays

Margaret Edson's Wit is a simple yet complex piece of drama. It's simple in the directness of its form and its unsentimental approach to a woman confronting the end of her life; it's complex because this is, after all, life and death. If we have a map for our life's journey, it is one of our own making, and one that needs constant revision.

In the play's 90 minutes, we are invited into the last several months of the life of Vivian Bearing (Toni Press-Coffman), a professor of English literature specializing in the early-17th-century poetry of John Donne. She has been diagnosed with Stage 4 ovarian cancer and has agreed to take the full dosage of chemotherapy over a period of eight months, a brutal treatment rarely tolerated, but offering her the only slim hope for survival. It will also offer researchers an opportunity to collect data in the ongoing effort to solve the mystery of the dreaded disease.

Etcetera, the late-night arm of Live Theatre Workshop, has mounted a respectable, though flawed, production of the piece. The group manages to deliver the play's thoughtful and touching story successfully enough for us to appreciate Edson's much-lauded drama, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1999.

Edson has Vivian, dressed in a hospital gown and a baseball hat covering her bald head, address the audience directly. There are brief flashbacks, like the moment when she is told that she has cancer, various interactions with medical personnel who treat her impersonally, and a peek into her classroom, where she is demanding, rigid and far from warm with students who show little understanding of the subject. A small cast plays these multiple characters, and it is a credit to director Christopher Johnson that these scenes blend together almost seamlessly. We are never confused about where we are, nor is the action weighed down by clunky transitions.

Press-Coffman courageously attempts to communicate Vivian's smarts and delightful wryness as she faces death in a cold and clinical environment. However, when she addresses the audience, she appears to be looking above our heads instead of directly at us, so she misses an opportunity to allow us to really feel connected to her. The character undergoes quite a transformation, from a self-sufficient smartass accustomed to leading with her head, to a human being traversing unfamiliar territory where her intellect is no match for her failing body. Press-Coffman gives us a character with whom we can sympathize; we can appreciate her emerging humanity, even as her human form disintegrates.

Director Johnson has the story march in a steady rhythm rather than allowing for moments of reflection. Perhaps he was trying to avoid sentimentality, which is certainly the right instinct. But there are moments—other than at the end of the play—when we want to breathe in the magnitude and mystery of what is happening. Edson's piece is rich, and we want to relish its insights, its wisdom and its wit.

Contemporary Irish playwright Enda Walsh's The New Electric Ballroom is a dark and sometimes delirious story of three sisters in a small fishing town in Ireland who are held hostage by their dreams and disappointments. It's a challenging play, both in its approach and its subject, but it is often lyrical and quite funny, in a perverse sort of way.

It's hard to watch these damaged and desultory characters whose strange behaviors are so often bewildering. But at the same time, the world that Walsh creates is so curious—and intense—that it's hard not to be fascinated.

Brought to life by the Rogue Theatre, a dependable source of eccentric and edgy theater, The New Electric Ballroom takes us inside the dreary home of Clara (Cynthia Meier) and Breda (Cynthia Jeffery), sisters bound not just by blood, but also by hurt and fear and a compulsive, repetitive cycle of storytelling. These elaborate monologues recount evenings, decades ago, when each groomed herself for a night out at the New Electric Ballroom, prepared for a sexual encounter with a member of the band. Both evenings ended badly, and the sisters have retreated to their home, from which they seem to never leave. The stories, complete with the sisters' transformations from their dowdy house dresses to the colorful, garish dresses worn on their big nights, seem to be cautionary tales for the youngest sister, Ada (Laura Lippman), who has never experienced romance—or groping in a dressing room—and seems suspended between the relative safety of the family home and the possibilities that might lie beyond.

The only visitor to their weird world is Patsy (Joseph McGrath), a ragged and awkward fishmonger who daily delivers fish (which is never eaten). His attempts to connect with the sisters are usually dismissed, but one day, Clara and Breda invite him in to participate in a fairy-tale-like fantasy for Ada's benefit. As he is transformed by donning the shiny blue suit that the sisters use as part of their oft-repeated memories, and by entering a reverie into which he invites Ada, might Ada be transformed herself?

Director Bryan Rafael Falcón has managed to take Walsh's poetically dark world and translate it into an emotionally comprehensible one. These characters talk and talk to fill their emptiness. "There's a terrible lull in the conversation," Breda says, "the sort of lull that can get you worrying about other things." And inside their walls, that must be avoided. They will "keep safe inside," where they "don't feel anything."

This is not a show that will delight everyone, but the Rogue does well with a difficult piece. If you enjoy adventurous theater, you will be rewarded.

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