DARLING I'M TELLING YOU
A spotlight comes up on an actress center stage, her back to the audience, perched atop a set of stairs. Dramatic music builds. She spins, locks eyes with the audience, charges down the stairs--and trips.
This was the unfortunate first moment in "Darling I'm Telling You," one of the short plays by Joyce Carol Oates making up an evening of the same name. But within seconds the actress, Holly Hancock, had so thoroughly and confidently recovered that the initial slipup was probably largely forgotten.
This simple act of charging forward despite the obstacles neatly encapsulates all that is wonderful about Raven Theatre's Darling I'm Telling You, an evening of surefooted steps and bold choices. While most opening-night performances seem hesitant, Raven's ran so smoothly that it seemed as if the show had been running for several months.
And what a difficult show to bring together! The five plays and monologues that make up Darling I'm Telling You range in style from broad satire to delicate psychological realism. But throughout, director Frank Farrell guides his talented cast with assurance. It's as if he simply told his actors, "Trust the text, and don't let anything hold you back."
Yet the performers never push too hard. They understand the value of holding passions in rather than letting them explode all over the stage. This is especially true in the three monologues--"Slow Motion," "Wife of . . . ," and "Darling I'm Telling You"--each of which presents women holding back emotions that threaten to overwhelm them. In "Slow Motion," a woman (Cecilie Keenan) relives the moment when her husband arrived home and remained in the car sobbing, a moment enigmatically portending the collapse of their relationship. Keenan's measured and thoughtful performance culminates in a desperate attempt to hold back a terrified sob as the lights fade.
In "Wife of . . . ," Betty Lou Fisk (Beth Kelly) tells us about her blissful marriage to a mass murderer whom she fell in love with as a spectator at his trial. Kelly's Betty Lou is pathetic and charming as she plugs in the Christmas lights around her changing mirror and exclaims in delight, "My cup runneth over!" Because Kelly intelligently plays Betty Lou as someone utterly unaware of her own tragic circumstance, the deep sadness of the piece echoes all the more resolutely, especially when she forces herself not to think of what her husband has done to women just like her.
In "Darling I'm Telling You," Maryanne (Hancock) is a dead stripper reliving "her worst and her last big mistake," namely her own murder. While this monologue is the most explosive of the three, as Maryanne dances and gyrates all around the stage, even coming out into the audience a few times, the moment of her murder is deliberately distanced. Farrell places the scene as far from the audience as possible, elevated on a platform and lit with a spotlight. This staging makes Maryanne all the more tragic since she is ultimately unreachable.
"Greensleeves" presents a chance encounter in the park between Tamara (Joan Quinlan) and Leon (Harvey Fries). Tamara tries desperately to carry on an ordinary conversation, but she is on the edge of hysteria because of the recent death of a friend. She needs Leon's company desperately--anyone's company, for that matter--but she tries her best not to need it. Quinlan's instincts in this scene are dynamite, as she lets everything and anything affect her, from a word that slips out of Leon's mouth to a suddenly painful memory. Fries seems a bit inflexible, maintaining a kind of charmed curiosity throughout the play. Of course, the playwright hasn't given him a lot to work with--he says "Are you OK?" seemingly 12 dozen times--but Leon must need something specific from Tamara for the play to make sense.
Finally, "The Ballad of Love Canal" presents the Noonan family, who have lived on the Love Canal toxic-waste dump in upstate New York for years with striking results: they can't remember anything and can hardly recognize each other. They try their damnedest to convince us that they are a typical American family--mother Bama (Lauren Love), father Medrick (Larry Wiley), son Dugan (David David Katzman), and uncle Gip (Jim Schutter). But the toxins in the soil and in their life--a government that has repeatedly lied to them, an economy that places profits above human lives--have left this family a hollow shell. All of the actors are terrifically funny, and their characters have a grotesquerie that this play needs. Bama, for example, does little more than simper, making Dugan so angry that he repeatedly shoves her across the stage.
It's easy to imagine a production of these pieces that would be hopelessly depressing and indulgent. Oates's psychological world is nothing if not bleak. This group of artists seems to understand that such desperation is part of being human, and thus can be addressed in a manner at once playful and serious. The result is an entertaining evening bringing us closer to a side of ourselves that doesn't often see the light of day.