Argyle Gargoyle Productions at Strawdog Theatre
Anne Commire's drama of female bonding in the face of terminal illness has all the potential for a TV Weeper of the Week--but Argyle Gargoyle Productions' stubborn honesty rescues Starting Monday from the cliches of Hollywood soaps. Impending death may work many changes, but--Love Story notwithstanding--beautification of body and character are not often among them.
We first meet the protagonists in 1978, on a New Year's morning. Lynne awakens with a hangover, no cigarettes, a memory of phoning Australia the night before, and an unknown man who might have been last night's cabdriver singing in the shower. Ellis awakens with a hangover, an empty Dunkin' Donuts box, an unknown man in her bed, and her mother phoning from a train station, where she's waiting for her daughter to arrive for their holiday dinner. Lynne and Ellis resolve to mend their ways with an Atlantic cruise to "get away from it all." United in their feminine self-loathing, they develop a friendship on board. But while Lynne kicks her drinking, smoking, and horniness in a rational, matter-of-fact manner, Ellis's problems seem more severe: obsessed with dieting, she keeps a journal of every crumb she eats and every vow to attain perfection "starting next Monday." After the cruise and a visit to her mother--Helen, a self-centered matron similarly obsessed with self-improvement and food--the daughter decides to pursue a career as a director in LA. The workaholic Ellis seems bound for success and happiness--but then she learns she has cancer, and having no one else to turn to (her mother being useless), she calls on Lynne.
At this point the play could have started sinking into the suds, Ellis growing saintly and serene, Helen finding new depths of maternal affection, and Lynne providing stoical strength. It doesn't happen. Ellis, who claims to have been "born angry," whines and kvetches like a pettish child: "You expect me to be a good sport about this?" she shrieks. Helen continues to center her life around menu planning, even when her daughter breaks down in her arms (the only time anyone cries in the play). Even Lynne's saving sense of humor cracks occasionally under the strain.
The nuts and bolts of the big C are delineated in clinical detail (theatergoers who get queasy at the sight of needles are hereby warned--on the other hand, I left the theater knowing all sorts of useful paramedical skills). Indeed, the biggest portion of the narrative is devoted to documenting the physical and spiritual progress of the disease. Lynne and Helen redecorate Ellis's depressing house, and her subsequent remission affirms the popular belief in the therapeutic value of cheerful surroundings. Ellis, after living months longer than indicated by her diagnosis, eventually comes to accept her impending death, but only after going through the Kubler-Ross drill (denial, anger, depression, etc). When we last see her, she's not a romantic heroine glowing with transcendence but an incontinent, malnourished, near-bald, slack-faced wraith, fettered with tubes and needles, awaiting yet another painful procedure.
Starting Monday may have been written as therapy; certainly its mission seems instructive. K. Martinovich's direction maintains a delicate equilibrium between the two: she never allows the production to slip into emotionalism or sterile mechanics. Sheila Savage as Ellis courageously portrays a decidedly unattractive but no less human character. Kelly Loudon (more often a director) plays Lynne with an ingenuous curiosity and ironic humor. Maria Cozzi displays restraint in the difficult role of Helen, who could easily have become a low-comedy caricature. Likewise the hospital personnel could have been played as grotesque and unfeeling, but in the hands of Alan Ziebarth, Mary Ann Bowman, Sullivan Hester, Andrew Garman, and Amy Malloy, they emerge as no more dispassionate or intimidating than their real-life counterparts. Mark Mrozek's sound design is a little too inspirational, coming dangerously close to commercial corn, but A.C. Marelli's set and Tracy Loudon's carefully researched props demonstrate a meticulous accuracy.
"Don't wait for Monday," Lynne directs us. "Live now." Death is not pretty at any time, or the knowledge that we will all die someday and die alone. But the reminder in Starting Monday that the ugliness of that unavoidable moment can be postponed through the love of even one friend comes as welcome comfort.
at At the Gallery-Chopin Theatre
Five reasons why even a professed Strindberg hater might have stayed all night at At the Gallery-Chopin Theatre watching Zbigniew Zasadny's production of Miss Julie:
(1) Zasadny uses the Ingmar Bergman adaptation of the play, which makes extensive use of action to reveal character. The production also includes two dance sequences. All of which permits much cumbersome and unnecessary dialogue to be excised.
(2) The streamlined script gives the actors time to introduce their characters gradually, allowing us to get to know and sympathize with them. The actors have obviously given their characters' motives and experiences great thought, and are able to present us with whole, identifiable personalities.
(3) Most actors tend to play the characters of Miss Julie as mature adults, though the script gives Julie's age as only 25; Jean and Christine are about the same. The young actors in this production, by transferring their youth to the characters, provide us with an analogy to the class distinctions and social barriers of 19th-century Sweden. The innocence and helplessness of youth make Julie's confusion at her bizarre family history and subsequent suicide plausible. This Julie could be seen today, 'luded out at Belmont and Sheffield on a Saturday night. Their youth also makes Jean's dream of owning his own small business and Christine's home-girl piety immediately recognizable to modern audiences.
(4) Shawn Coyle's jazz-ballet-fusion dances fairly sizzle with the midsummer sensuality that will prove the characters' undoing. Ditto the incidental music selected from such diverse sources as Kitaro, Villa-Lobos, and Peter Gabriel.
(5) The young cast--Amy Elizabeth Flaherty as Julie, Eric Virkkala as Jean, and Sheila Willis as Christine--are still fresh enough to take visible pride in their work, a quality that wins our respect and admiration.