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|A CurtainUp Review
By Kathryn Osenlund
The Wilma Theater presents the U.S. premiere of Perfect Pie written by celebrated Canadian playwright Judith Thompson and directed by Philadelphia's most award-winning director, Blanka Zizka. Designed to appear simple -- just bringing it all back home-- the play secretly drips and throbs with murky subtext. In many ways Perfect Pie is rich, beautiful food for thought, but in its desire not to be transparent the play does not fully realize its potential, and tends to get lost in its own complexity.
Ostensibly, a successful actress, Francesca aka Marie (Elizabeth Hess) pays a visit to her old childhood friend and soul mate, the down home Patsy (played with feeling by Meg Anderson). The story sifts through the confidences, pain, and trauma of the past. Vivid reminiscences, which start when the girls were 9 years old, are intercut with the present visit. Genia Michaela plays the young Patsy, and Martha Libman, the young Marie. Both actresses are quite believable in their roles as children although both are twenty-somethings.
The entire play comes across as a bit histrionic where a lighter touch would better serve the production. Something is overdone in the timbre of the voices and the acting is overwrought. The problems extend to the writing. For example, repetition of the phrase, "I will not forget you. You are carved in the palm of my hand," illustrates the preciosity from which this play suffers.
The visit of a long ago friend spurs the playing out of memories and consequences. Or maybe not. Is this play just about a nostalgic visit? Is it about repressed and sublimated love? Is it about misplaced blame? Is it about who is the craziest? Does someone really construct a way to arrive at a key admission to herself? Perhaps a phantom visitor unlocks secrets long kept from the self. Perhaps not. It's unclear. A discernible through-line is needed in the under story -- one that fits the top story. When a pivotal revelation finally appears, it doesn't fit the "surface story." Not just a surprise reversal, which can be a great moment in theatre, it is a wrong fit.
To its credit the play gives nuanced treatment to the despised "other" in society, with the victim's attendant guilt that the wrongness of being different comes from inside and makes one culpable. There's a good amount of humor here too. Francesca boasts of a conquest to her country mouse friend, saying that the sex was great, "it even felt important like we were working for the French Resistance." But even such nice, juicy filling does not save this pie.
This is not a bare stage production, and there are interesting things to look at, but the set by Gordana Svilar, though imaginative, is fragmented. There is a kitchen, a barn, railroad tracks in two places, and a kind of Never-Never Land background. No effort seems to have been made to create a visual whole. The use of projections that look like rear projections, but aren't, is clever, and there is some intriguing use of lighting by Russell Champa.
In the final analysis, Perfect Pie's problems keep it from being satisfying. Who is this play's intended audience, intellectual psychics? Is it possible that the "real story" is buried too well for the interested playgoer to discern it on the first viewing? A play, usually seen just once, needs to deliver the goods fully baked and ready for consumption. If this playwright really wants to tell a different story from the surface story, then she should tell it. If she doesn't, then the play is giving false leads and is off-track.
While a fine play has clarity and simplicity, a deliberately obscure play can betray a kind of elitism and lose the beautiful transparency and inevitability of a true classic. It is commendable that the Wilma tackles difficult, flawed plays like this one--and this work should be seen. However, behind the homey exterior, the harsh memories, the cantilevered structure, lies a play that tries too hard to be Important Theatre.