review: a charity case

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A Charity Case

Written and directed by Wendy Beckett
Featuring Alison Fraser, Alysia Reiner, Jill Shackner
Clurman Theatre, Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
November 2, 2011 — November 20, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
November 1, 2011

L-R Alysia Reiner, Alison Fraser, Jill Shackner

Motherhood by biology and motherhood by adoption.  Adolescence by age, indulgence, self-absorption. Everyone acts out in this story with gaping holes in logic that stop you in your tracks — e.g. ignoring a legal system that would prosecute a woman for abandoning a preschool aged child on a cross-country train, and not illuminating at all how a birth mother might locate an adoptive mother years after the fact in the 1960s.  Regardless of these glaring details (and full disclosure — I spent some time working professionally in the area of adoption and foster care policy so these details could disturb me more than your average theatre goer), the structure of A Charity Case written and directed by Wendy Beckett provides a range of profound and charged issues in the writing and in the execution.  The emotional challenges of adoption for all parties are deep and multiple and important. This play does not provide a road into unpacking them.

Our play is haunted for much of the action by a witch-y woman who calls herself Harpie (Alysia Reiner), who tells us she named herself after her own lifelong experience in foster care.  She swarms, scurries above and around a single room set below (in a storied set evocative of I Am My Own Wife‘s layered set, with less content) and for much of the play we are unsure whether or not her story of her own abandonment and mental illness has anything at all to do with the realistic story that takes place center stage — of a single dressmaker mother Faith (Alison Fraser)  and her adopted now adolescent daughter Deidre (Jill Shackner) who are both afraid of their connection.  Unbeknownst to each other or to us in the audience for much of the action of the play, both Deidre and Faith have received letters from Deidre’s birth mother who wants to meet them, which has exacerbated their usual testy exchanges.   They act out, cry, fight, collapse, drink, cry.

Based on the music design and costuming, I place this in the early 1960s, in an unnamed American locale.  This lack of clear geographic or dated context is the primary set of challenges for me. And the performance range provides another layer of challenge.  Shackner’s Deidre never achieves anything more nuanced than petulance or yelling — her awareness of a birth mother seeking to meet her, and 60 minutes of Deidre and Faith’s avoidance of this topic is wearing, unbelievable, unsustainable as a theatrical jumping off point.  The sideshow of be-wigged and crazed-costumed Harpie is not well integrated, though she swarms around the action, lurking above and at the side of the apartment, and of course provides a key final stage image.  Fraser gets closest to achieving something solid with her hardworking single mom, whose husband abandoned her when their adopted daughter was an infant, and tries to carry on as a fading but still beautiful woman with creative dreams, a business to run, and a child to raise.  Yet even she is hampered by stilted directorial choices — freeze framed action, that kind of thing.

The emotions informing the impulse to tell this story are true, and the questions are primal — what is parenthood, how do we define family.  At the edges of this story are the questions of possible women’s roles in western culture.  The character I have least sympathy for by the end of this adventure is our yelling, testy adolescent, but no one comes off well.  This is beside the point, however — the challenge is not to like characters on stage but to craft a story with consistent rules of engagement (fantasy or fiction or legally true) within a believable American cultural and legal context.  As we are not provided consistently (or realistically) told instrumental details that might keep us engaged and perhaps sympathize with one or the other of these characters, we feel simply as though we are watching people act out rather than reveal.  Emote at rather than illuminate for us and for each other some real human truth.

© Martha Wade Steketee (November 3, 2011)

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