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A CurtainUp Review

So Close
By Jenny Sandman

Has anyone ever loved you so much it actually makes them crazy?…Have you ever made love like your life depended on it, because it did?
A show about domestic violence is not generally considered to be an uplifting event. But So Close at Walkerspace is as close to uplifting as it can get. Rather than focusing on the violence itself, it focuses on one couple's journey through their abusive relationship, turning the play into an exploration of "the piece of the puzzle that everyone forgets" --the love.

So Close takes place in a dreary, generic waiting room for some sort of clinic. It's sterile and flatly lit. As the characters drag themselves in, Claire begins telling us her story. The other actors become the characters in her story, even as they continue their waiting-room actions. Gradually, everyone gets up and moves around.

Claire and Joey actually love each other, but his short temper turns him into a raging madman at regular intervals. She came from a strict home and got pregnant early. Being extremely poor, the couple, they struggled with two small children as he bounced from one dead-end job to another and then succumbed to alcoholism and drug abuse, until their relationship slowly became an abusive one with her juggling husband, kids, and an eating disorder.

We get Joey's side of the story, as well as that of his mother and Claire's parents. Periodically we hear from case workers, from counselors, as well as from beleaguered DAs swamped with women pressing charges and then dropping them -- like Claire who is weary of her life, but rather than to leave Joeyjust wants him to change.

This story has one of the rare "happy" endings to an abusive relationship -- if such a term can be applied in this circumstance. What happens is that Claire finally finds the courage to leave. She and Joey both go to counseling, he learns how to control his temper, and they get back together. As Claire's counselor points out, so many people ask the woman, "Why do you stay? Why don't you leave?" , but no one ever thinks to ask the man, "Why do you hit?" It's a passive-aggressive way of blaming the woman for her situation.

Claire (playwright Marin Gazzaniga) carries most of the show on her thin shoulders, but she's ably supported by the small and versatile cast. Joey (John Ellison Conlee, lately of The Full Monty) provides an admirable foil, and is complex enough to be believable rather than simply an ape-like wife beater.

Michael Sexton's tight direction keeps everything lively within the confines of the small stage. Though it moves slowly, due in large part to its narrative style, So Close would suffer from a faster pace. It's commendable for not being awash in self-pity or righteous indignation, which may be attributable to the play's being compiled from actual case histories. It's disquieting but provocative, and offers a fresh viewpoint on an old problem.

Written by Marin Gazzaniga
Directed by Michael Sexton
With John Ellison Conlee, Perri Gaffney, Marin Gazzaniga, Julia Gibson, Daniel Freedom Stewart, and Cristine McMurdo-Wallis
Lighting Design by Michael Brunschweiler
Set Design by Andromache Chalfant
Sound Design by Jill Du Boff
Running time: One hour and fifteen minutes with no intermission
Rising Phoenix Repertory, Walkerspace, 46 Walker Street; 212-868-4444
All tickets $15
Through 5/29/04; opening 5/15/04 Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on May 14th performance
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