A CONCEIVED NOTION
at Unity in Chicago
One thing I have to say about the creative minds behind A Conceived Notion: they're no slouches. Everything in Vita Dennis's play speaks of professional integrity--from Pamela L. LaBrosse's pristine set to Ed Tossing's original music, not one production detail has been overlooked.
Such attention to detail is refreshing, and it keeps Dennis's script alive and kicking despite its risky subject. A Conceived Notion deals with the concept of grace--a terribly heady theological idea difficult, perhaps impossible, to translate into theater. But Dennis manages a lot just through trying, and her script is supported by genuine theatrical talent and directed well by Warren Davis. The result is an entertaining, intellectually engaging argument. As theater, however, it falls short. The spiritual conflict of Dennis's protagonist is too ethereal to fuel the play's action, and by the second act A Conceived Notion has slipped from theater into a well-staged piece of theological discourse.
The protagonist, Alex (Marge Royce), is a yuppie-scum type, a big player in mergers and acquisitions. She's on her way to an important meeting when her Porsche breaks down in the middle of nowhere. She goes to a nearby diner for assistance, but an unusual combination of circumstances prevents her from leaving. In fact she's trapped there until she changes from an aggressive, harsh businesswoman into a gentle, spiritual soul.
The circumstances leading to this transformation are reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. On the surface the diner seems like your typical spick-and-span truck stop. But Porsches stop running within 50 yards of it, cellular phones don't work, and doors are mysteriously locked, then just as mysteriously spring open again. The only person working there is an unusual waitress (Dennis) who doesn't own a telephone, TV, or radio, doesn't know what kind of people live nearby, can't read a map, and doesn't care.
Missing from this production is an understanding of what kind of place this diner is. That doesn't have to be clear at the beginning, but by the end we ought to know. Is it a real diner? Or a figment of Alex's imagination? Did it appear just to bring about her spiritual transformation? Or can anyone go there, order a cup of joe, and find inner peace?
The play opens with Alex bursting into the diner, spitting out demands like an Uzi firing. The waitress gently tells her these demands can't be met, and offers her nothing in compensation. Throughout, the waitress remains pleasantly peaceful, a slight smile on her face, her voice smooth. Alex, on the other hand, finds everything enormously irritating: she's missing a big meeting and stands to lose big bucks due to circumstances over which she has no control. She grows more and more frantic, yet the waitress seems thoroughly unruffled, saying odd things like "Life is its own resolution." Or answering Alex's question "Ever wonder what the point is?" with the question "Of what?" When Alex responds in exasperation, "Everything," she calmly answers, "No . . . "
Dennis has written some great one-liners, which she and Royce deliver with charming aplomb. She has a great sense of the irony and the humor of the waitress's (and presumably her own) point of view. One of the best moments occurs when Alex wonders if she's died and gone to hell--she accuses the waitress of being the devil's handmaid, then decides that couldn't be true: "You'd take the devil to some remote part of hell and bore him into turning over a new leaf!"
Of course it's Alex who's bored into turning over a new leaf. By the end of the play she's painfully examined her soul and remapped her perceptions of the world. Through the waitress's pithy sayings and Alex's transformation, A Conceived Notion comes close to illustrating the idea of grace in a time of crisis. But ultimately it misses its target because Dennis fails to give her protagonist a true crisis: to be genuinely dramatic, theater needs a specific conflict between two distinct forces, but for Alex the problem is within herself and she resolves it within herself. And it's not enough if the forces exist only in the character's head.