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The Radiant Abyss
by Rich See
Woolly Mammoth closes out its season with a neon-surrounded world premiere of The Radiant Abyss, a brand new play by Angus MacLachlan, the writer of the off-Broadway hit The Dead Eye Boy. Abyss' fast paced, dark humor has many laughs and some pointed insights. Playwright MacLachlan was commissioned by Woolly to create The Radiant Abyss just over two years ago. And in this most recent work Mr. MacLachlan tackles bigotry, prejudice, hate, and vigilantism. Along with incorporating twisted love, sex, and how people yearn to be pulled into something larger than themselves, in order to feel some sense of validity, purpose, or experience of being alive.
Set in Winston-Salem, North Carolina (Mr. MacLachlan's home), the play centers on three characters: Erin Skidmore, the aggressive owner of Skidmore Property Management; Steve Enloe, a young man caught up in her high-energy personality, whom she occasionally uses for sex and odd jobs; and Ina, Steve's newest girlfriend who is much brighter than she initially seems. When Erin and Steve turn their warped attention towards the new storefront church that has moved into their strip mall location, they immediately begin spewing unfounded and exaggerated allegations about the fundamentalist worshipers. In a short span of time they hit upon the idea of "letting their feelings be known," which just happens to incorporate vandalism and theft; but which they state as necessary and within their rights since the members of the church have verbally and visually abused them both. Into this revenge plan they pull Ina who is quickly caught up in the emotion of it all and once she commits to assisting them the play begins an odd and unforeseen roller coaster ride.
Mr. MacLachlan has a keen sense of how people's morals and motivations can be skewed, of how peer pressure can erode one's values, and also of how average people can be manipulated to de-humanize their neighbors simply because the neighbors dress, talk, act, or live differently. Disturbing enough at a local level, if he were to extract his thematic lines to a national scale they would be nightmarishly frightening.
Director Lou Jacob has created a very realistic production. While The Radiant Abyss is a dark comedy, the staging, characterizations, and actions are all done with a sense of realism. James Kronzer's set looks like a back office warehouse, complete with a delivery pick up waiting for UPS. Lighting designer Daniel MacLean Wagner's use of neon is inspired. The endings of Acts 1 and 2 are like photographs being taken within one's memory as the neon suddenly bursts bright while the stage darkens. Anne Kennedy's costumes for Steve Enloe and Ina are uniforms, which showcase their sheep-like following of Erin. Erin Skidmore is dressed in high skirts and higher heels, making her disgust at being looked at by the men of the church sound very hollow, especially when she arrives to her warehouse-like office in a red outfit that looks like she is going dancing for the evening. Sound designer Ryan Rumery's use of light jazz as a backdrop showcases the emptiness of the character's lives.
Janis Dardaris's Erin Skidmore is played with alternate caring and ruthlessness. She does well with a complex character whose past is only insinuated, but never fully revealed. And her energetic performance pulls off the Svengali-like stage presence required to catch the younger characters into her warped world-view. As the dopey Steve Enloe, Jeremy Beazlie is both charming and rakish in a good 'ole boy kind of way. It's obvious Steve cares only about what is in front of him at the moment, and Mr. Beazlie's helps the audience believe in Enloe's self-delusion. Dana Acheson's Ina is alternately naïve and cold-hearted, and Miss Acheson realistically brings that duality off. She also delivers a touching monologue that connects the play's title to its contents. All the actors have wonderful comedic timing, while also a sense of how to walk the tightrope of drama that runs throughout the play.
While The Radiant Abyss has a great deal to say, Mr. MacLachlan's newest work is hampered by a lack of focus. His characters unnecessarily run verbal circles, which needlessly increases the play's length. And the final scene is forced since there is no explained reason why one character walks on stage and hands a certain item to another character -- except to create a jarring ending that fills your mind with emotional image instead of thoughtful substance. However, The Radiant Abyss is definitely for anyone who loves pure Woolly Mammoth-style shows of dark humor, crazed dialogue that runs amok, a bit of quick violence, and a sudden wrap-it-all-up ending.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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