review: in the wake

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In the Wake

By Lisa Kron
Directed by Leigh Silverman
Featuring Jenny Bacon, Michael Chernus,  Marin Ireland, Deirdre O’Connell
The Public Theatre, 425 Lafayette Street
production web site:
http://tinyurl.com/29w2e73

October 19, 2010  — November 21, 2010

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
October 30, 2010

Playwright Lisa Kron has taken risks with her current play In the Wake.  She has crafted a play intended to star someone other than herself and boldly attempts to tell that story at several levels at once.  Her perhaps best known prior work Well has been produced with other actresses in the lead, as I saw it produced at Next Theatre in Evanston, IL, but Kron built it on her own bones, with herself starring in it during its initial attention-gathering New York run.  Further, she has decided to frame her work of personal transformation within markers of world geopolitical events.  Interpersonal revelations (or lack thereof) are punctuated or instigated or impervious to political travesties (the 2000 election results decided by Supreme Court fiat in early 2001) and election results that held without Court intervention (2004) and floods exacerbated by political decisions (Katrina 2005).  And on.  These events are not merely mentioned but broadcast and projected between scenes, marking time passing.  The playwright’s desire to have these themes, private and public, local and national and world politics inform and enhance the lives of her characters on stage is clear.  Direct address and projections (though artfully crafted) of familiar political events of the past 10 years do not achieve this goal. The end result is a first act which might work as a straightforward play without the direct address, and a second act that involves endless individual character monologues that stop the play’s movement in its tracks.

Ellen (the enchanting Marin Ireland who stole the show from the movie stars Johnny Lee Miller and Sienna Miller in Roundabout’s 2009 After Miss Julie) is engaged in political work and living with her boyfriend Danny (Michael Chernus) in their East Village apartment.  When the play begins, we are deep in the “hanging chad” messed up vote count Florida butterfly ballot bring-in-the-Supreme-Court 2000 Presidential election that has not yet been decided.  Danny’s sister Kayla (Susan Pourfar) and her partner Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) live in an apartment in the same building.  Ellen’s work mate Judy (Deirdre O’Connell) has returned from refugee camp work abroad to attend her mother’s funeral and is crashing with Ellen.  Political debates ensue.  Ellen is a rapid talking hot head who talks over everyone else in the room — in fact clears the room more than once.  Friends and family are political but perhaps more thoughtful.  Each scene brings a new political event (the 2004 election, Katrina, and on, with fine projections on the framed performance space) and new chances for Ellen to make some decisions and act.  And accept responsibility.  Let’s see how she does. Ellen meets and falls in love with Amy (Jenny Bacon) who lives in Boston.  And Ellen is honest about this new relationship and re-awakening of college experimentation with same-sex relationships (we’re given that detail early in her conversations with Kayla and Laurie).  Filmmaker Amy also challenges the cerebral and prickly Ellen to experience live in another way.  As Ellen says about her films: “I don’t want people to think about them too much.  I want them to be felt.”  Ellen attempts to live between her worlds in New York with Danny, a man she has loved for many years, and Amy, a new love.  Ellen can’t make herself choose between thinking and feeling, between New York and Boston, between men and women.

Judy the aid worker (with a married lover who leaves her, and a needy niece from a rural area who lives with her for a while — too many plot lines, too little time) has some of the best lines, but even she becomes a ‘stand and deliver’ political harangue by the end of the play.  It’s as if the director Leigh Silverman just stopped staging midway through the second act — two-character diatribes become the norm, standing still, for minutes at a time.  The speeches are weighty and political, but honestly, we in the audience can process deep thoughts and character movement at the same time.  Is this theatre or a Sunday morning political talking head program?

While she is still being quippy and sardonic rather than bleak and hopeless, Judy has a few delights. My favorite character. Funny yet delivered straight.  You believe Judy.

  • (to Ellen): “I don’t know how you live so close to people.”
  • (on Chad in Africa — oh my a joke about “hanging chads” attempted here too?): “Chad may be a shit hole worse than Haiti, but the croissants are divine.”
  • (on her pragmatic dreams during childhood poverty): “I mostly fantasized about having my own house.  And a gun.”

And that’s our core metaphor.  American’s can’t choose.  They can’t see themselves as part of a world community.  They can’t see themselves honestly.  They have a blind spot.  The premise promises but the execution becomes a debate team exercise.  And the bold-faced political framing and Ellen’s direct address to the audience to begin and end the play’s acts never feel integrated or earned.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 2, 2010)

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