Thursday, September 22, 2011

Powell play adopts new look

Things aren't the way they should be and they're not what they seem in "The Way Life Should Be," the "new" Leslie Powell play that has been kicking around stages, on the east coast, in the southwest, in one form or another for about seven years and, recently opened the fourth season of North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative, a Port play development series, in a dramatically stripped down form that came after a major rewrite just days before the latest opening. Something the actors must have been really happy about. Hey, everyone loves last-minute rewrites, right? It’s a story with a very long history — like the play itself. It's about a much-delayed, much- anticipated reunion, a get-together Elaine has played out in her head thousands of times over the years. She has not seen Grady since he was a little boy  — 19 inches to be exact — when she gave him up for adoption. He’s 27 years old now. She knows it was the "right" thing to do, but that decision has cast a shadow over the rest of her life, which has been shrouded in doubt and guilt for as long as she can remember, although the emotional ramifications have mostly simmered below the surface. He is the "ghost baby," who has been haunting her all his life. Wherever that played out. She has waited for the call for years, not expecting to get it, because in her heart she feels guilty, she feels like she is being — and maybe should be — punished because, after all, what kind of monster would willingly give away her child? No, no. Nobody ever said it. To her face. But she has felt the scorn of icy imagined stares through most of her adult life. No amount of comfort, reassurance from Jess, her lovie-dovie, long-time live-in will change that. Okey-dokey? 

She's a total wreck. The reunion is like a first date or, worse, a blind date — with, it turns out, someone who in the normal course of life, away from the searing emotional hurt and guilt a ghost mother feels, she would ignore. Grady is a Free Will Baptist, which is apparently some kind of dour, finger-pointing fundamentalist sect. He's been saved. Hooray! He doesn't drink, he doesn't smoke, he doesn't — um, you know? —  fornicate. Or so he would have you believe. Worse, as far as these right-thinking suburban liberals are concerned, he’s ... a Republican — and not the softer-edged Massachusetts variety.  And, complicating matters, he shows up early. With his girlfriend, another fundie, supposedly celibate — with missionary parents to boot. Who is pregnant. No, it’s not what you think. Or maybe it is. She wants to talk to “Mom” about her experience with adoption. Because, well, she’s considering it. Actually she’s pretty clear about it.   
 Everybody is walking on eggshells. They're uncomfortable, nervous, afraid to say the wrong thing, to be misunderstood, to reveal too much of themselves to someone who they "should" know intimately, afraid the other will flee, that the moment will be lost. Elaine’s afraid of that guilt she’s dragged around all these years. He’s afraid that the anger he is trying to force below the surface will bubble up. And through it all, it looks like the whole thing will blow up in their faces.  
It’s an edgy, funny, poignant play that explores limits of love, it's an interpersonal mess, one that takes a very dark turn. It's a complicated story, one told easily and with a very light touch. Like all North Shore Readers Theater Collaborative shows, it was script in hand, but it didn't feel that way. Directed by Daniel Borque, the actors —  Sally Nutt, Bob Murphy, Brashani Reece and Eric Skoglund — provided a performance rather than just a reading. The audience laughed, cried and and gasped in all the right places. The audience feedback at the end, another feature of the play development series, was fairly gushy. Powell has dug pretty deep with this one. “I think I went by Doug Wright's theory,” says the playwright, co-founder of Random Acts, a play-in-a-day series and ‘Writers and Actors, INK, ” referring to the playwright who won the 2004 Pulitzer for his play “I Am My Own Wife.”  “Someone asked him what do you do when you sit down to write a play,” Powell says, “and he said, ‘open a vein.’  Fortunately, I have some pretty funny veins too!"

The play actually got its start seven years ago in a staged reading at the 2004 New Works Festival. The following year, it got a reading at the Old Pueblo Playwrights New Works Festival in Tucson, Powell's winter hideout. It was short-listed for the Eugene O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2006 and earned a spot in The Footlight Club play development series, in early 2007. Then, a couple of months ago, the play got another spin when the Small Theatre Alliance staged one act of the play during its Playwrights Open Mic Night. And the ride is not over. "The Way Life Should Be" will see a full run Nov. 11-13, and Nov. 18-20 at the Actors Studio. Bourque will return as director. Mandy will again be played by Brashani Reece,  with Karen Scalia as Elaine, Stephen Sacchetti as Grady and Mark Nichols as Jess.


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