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A CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Natural Theatricals, the classical Greek-oriented theatre company performing in Alexandria is offering a world premiere of artistic director Paula Alprin's Alexa's Necklace. The story looks at a woman who is still grieving the death of her daughter long after everyone else around her has moved on. While still a work in progress, Ms. Alprin's play has some moments of real humor and insight as it deals with issues of grief, remorse, and the pain of letting go.
As the story opens, Hollywood agent Adam is trying to reach his wife Esther to find out about the screenplay he has commissioned her to write for his client Sandra Cassidy. Sandra is an actress who reached the pinnacle of her success via her looks and is now trying to make a comeback via her talents (which everyone admits are very small). Esther, however, is still grieving about the loss of her daughter Janine, the golden child in the family. Her delusions have reached the point where she has begun hallucinating about her dead daughter and having lengthy conversations with her. Conveniently Esther imagines Janine when she is 12 instead of when she died at 24, which makes the daughter that much more controllable and a victim to the circumstances surrounding her death.
To assuage her grief and inner guilt, Esther blames Adam for their daughter's death. It seems Janine worked for her father at his talent agency after she graduated from college and had begun to blossom into a stellar agent. However, to woo another agent to the firm, Adam was forced to make an offer that would take some of Janine's clients away from her. It's this betrayal of his own daughter that Esther is so angry about. However, Janine's sister Alexa remembers that Janine agreed to give up her clients, since an agent with international contacts would open up new avenues for the company's expansion.
Whether Janine agreed or not to the business deal, shortly after it as completed, she was at a bar, had a few too many cocktails, got behind the wheel of her car, neglected to fasten her seat belt and then ran into a tree abd died instantly, the irony being that Janine was always someone who promoted responsible drinking and driving to those around her. We enter the story several years after Janine's death when Esther and Adam's marriage is faltering and Esther is taking her anger out on everyone around her, especially her visiting sister Ella.
While, Ms. Alprin's script contains quite a bit of humor, it does have a few rough spots and some odd segues into an unexplained psychiatrist's office. Ironically, these unexplained visits between Felice Golden and Dr. Jason are the most humorous in the script and could become a play in their own right. Meanwhile, the character of Esther is not terribly sympathetic and Adam's guilt, if there is any, is never actualized. What we do see is someone caught up in her own pain, who wants to lash out at the world and who finally allows herself to let go and move on. As I said before, this is still a work in progress and with the help of a firm editor will take a more concrete shape.
Director Susan Alison Keady has pulled together a cast which seems genuinely invested in the show However, there are a few odd moments of staging, as at the very end when a lengthy scene change is completed for a two-minute piece of dialogue that heralds the end of the performance. The scene change involves bringing a heavy life-size lamp post into the space so that the performers can appear to be talking on the street. In lieu of yet another scene change, the set could be reworked or the scene could be shifted or simply handled differently.
Michael Null and Michael Egart's sound design creates a nice mood setting for the production as does Franklin Coleman's lighting. Paula Mayes Coupe's costumes are on target, although the masquerade party outfits could stand a bit more dazzle
As Esther, Karen Doubek is partially successful in creating a woman with whom we can empathize. The character's pain is ready to fling arrows at anyone, including her other children. So, much like those women of Greek tragedies, she is also simply inflicting pain upon herself as well. To Ms. Doubek's credit, you can imagine that if you met Esther under different circumstances she could be someone you might like.
Jennifer Berg's Alexa is sympathetic as a young woman who is trying to walk the minefield of her parents' faltering marriage. Fred Lash is very engaging as David de Vega a debonair man who is attracted to Esther and who just happens to be seeking a script to produce himself.
Tom Pentecost is a likeable self-absorbed Adam and a blissfully detached Dr. Jason. There is an odd part though -- again unexplained -- where Adam, who is a jogger, is suddenly sidelined by a conga dance. You are unsure if it is part of the script or an actual injury happening on stage. It seems necessary to the plot, yet incongruous to what we already know about the character.
Janet Devine Smith's Carly -- cousin to the sisters and good friend of each -- seems somewhat forced in her effusive praise of both, but creates a persona of flighty good will. Paula Alprin's Ella is a kooky, new ager who keeps espousing that by not thinking she is slowing down the aging process. It seems Esther has pulled Ella into partial responsibility for Janine's death since Ella had left her husband to run off with another man just a few months before Janine died. (In Esther's odd world view this family trauma helped pushed the 24 year-old woman to have too many drinks at a bar.) Meanwhile, Ella advises her sister, "Everyone is in pain Esther. Be different." Not something that Esther wants to hear, but perhaps should.
The standout performance comes from Aimée Meher-Homji in several roles -- as the Older Janine back from the dead pleading for a bit of undisturbed rest, as the rude Sandra Cassidy and especially as the deranged Felice Golden in love with her psychiatrist. Ms. Meher-Homji's delivery and comedic timing are wonderful.
All in all, Natural Theatricals is slowly emerging into their own and this production of a new script is a step in that direction. This is the last play in their 2005 season and they should be returning next summer with a new crop of Greek Theatre to make us think about life's bigger questions.
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