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A CurtainUp Review
The Secret Agenda of Trees
Set in a rural community in the American backwoods, the play is a hybrid of realistic and surrealist events. We meet Maggie and her 14 year-old daughter Veronica, a plucky teen whose rich fantasy life has her impersonating Rosemary Clooney and Veronica Lake. Even more eerie, she frequently calls herself Lulu, perhaps an allusion to the young and sexy, self-destructive heroine out of Frank Wedekind's Lulu plays. If this isn't enough to send shivers down your spine, then toss in a mysterious stranger named Jack, who's out of work and money.
The action begins with Maggie on the porch of her shabby ranch house. She's drinking booze and aggressively trying to discourage Jack from coming into her home. She's threatens to call the police if he doesn't leave her property, and to further distance him, tells him that she has a kid and a cheap job at the nearby meat packing plant. In spite of her harsh threats and discouraging personal history, Jack responds by boldly walking up on the porch and getting very close to her. Just as they are getting comfortable with one another, Veronica quietly enters the scene. i Jack catches sight of her n her nightshirt and his flirtation with Maggie is put on temporary hold. To be sure, the play could be retitled "Flirtations with Danger and Death."
There's not a healthy character or relationship in the entire story. Maggie is not only a heavy drinker but a meth addict. Jack is every bit as self-destructive with his excessive drinking and drug-taking. Veronica, infatuated with a tattooed boy named Carlos from study hall, is already experimenting with sex, drugs and rebellion. And even Veronica's brother Dixon, who's fighting overseas in Iraq, is a dark presence, having left home to escape the miasma of drugs and booze.
Beyond the dependencies, the play purports to examine the blurring of reality and illusion. In a rather surreal second act scene, Dixon makes a surreptitious visit home. Is this an hallucination? Is it the author's way of colorfully portraying Veronica's dream life? There is of course no answer since Veronica is the only witness to Dixon's return , and she has a penchant for warping reality. The value of the scene, however, is that Dixon reveals that he has found Veronica's notes inside his helmet in Iraq. It turns out that Veronica, who has been scribbling all kinds of personal testimonies on the back of Ho Jo's bar napkins and candy wrappers, has the soul of a poet. In fact, one of her notes gorgeously articulates the title's "secret agenda of trees" to which she herself aspires. Earlier, while alone in the living room, she had recited the note out loud: "What is the secret agenda of trees? Why do they claw so desperately at the sky? I want to whisper in secret meeting with the twisted highways and the lumbering red rock monsters of the open plain. Let me be the highest leaf that suckles brilliant sunlight." Curiously, Veronica is the only character with any kind of purpose and vision for reaching for the sky and finding a better life, albeit distorted by her impoverished circumstances.
It is amazing to see how good actors can take unsympathetic characters and engage you in the details of their lives. Lillian Wright as Maggie is a hillbilly of a woman. She's tough, tender, and deluded into thinking that she can get the best of her addictions. Michael Tisdale's Jack is one slow-talking romantic, and though he lands a job in the local slaughterhouse, he's mostly too inebriated to make clear sense of his life. Reyna de Courcy plays Veronica with a vixen-like charm. Only Christian Navarro as Carlos is miscast, looking a tad young for his tattoo-boy role.
There's one scene in Act Two that seems too predictable. Maggie is attempting to overcome her meth addiction, and believing that the only way this is possible is to physically barricade herself in the room. Thus, she asks Veronica to secure her bedroom door with heavy metal chains. Not surprisingly, Veronica is utterly repulsed by her mother's desperation. Compared to the rest of the drama, this whole bit seems like an overworked cliché and feels psychologically flat.
The Secret Agenda of Trees has already passed muster in some prestigious venues, and was selected by Edward Albee in 2007 as a finalist in the first Yale Drama Series . It also was presented as part of the Cherry Lane Theatre's Mentor Project, has received the Goldberg Prize, the John Golding Playwriting Award,and more.
Michael Kimmel has directed adroitly and energetically. The lighting and scenic design by Ben Kato is flawless. Everything on stage looks properly worn and raggedly authentic.
Whatever else it is, The Secret Agenda of Trees does not provide solace. It is a jolting reminder that cycles of dependency are self-defeating. If there is any moral here, it is that the secret agenda of trees, in their struggle to reach heaven, might be something for humans to emulate.