Dearest Eugenia Haggis
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
May 23, 2005
Ann Marie Healy's new play Dearest Eugenia Haggis, which is part of Summerworks 2005, Clubbed Thumb's mini-new-works festival, focuses on three eccentric characters. Two of them are women—the title character, a plainspoken (and plain-looking) middle-aged lady who is as stubbornly intolerant of others' foibles as she is blindly unaware of her own; and the much younger Pauline Khenghis, a dreamy and perennially unhappy schemer who seems to understand that she's already irretrievably stuck in a rut from which she is unwilling and/or unable to extract herself. Both compete, more or less, for a stable future working for Blind Johnny Knoll, whose main attribute is described in his name. Healy sets up a kind of contest between the two women, and though their respective psychological baggage would seem to result in an even match, the outcome is anything but a draw. That said, it shouldn't surprise you that no one seems to win, either.
It's a bleak world depicted in this play; Healy coyly describes it in the program as "Someplace very far away from many things; almost everything. Most definitely the furthest outskirts of a tiny copper town called Calumet in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan." This same kind of cutesy indecisiveness pervades the entire show: we're aware that Healy is trafficking in the saddest and deepest reaches of loneliness in spinning this tale, but at the same time she keeps pulling back and away, almost postmodernly, calling attention to the folly of her creations in jarringly whimsical ways. Pauline lapses into self-conscious daydream/fantasies in which she darts about the small house like a vampire or some other B-movie monster; for Eugenia, Healy has devised an equally self-conscious set of speech patterns and catch phrases that make her sound like a cliche patchwork of '30s-era maiden lady next-door neighbors (think Margaret Hamilton as Miss Gulch, but not so malevolent). The effect of this is to intentionally distance us from a story that might otherwise be allowed to touch us; I'm not sure why Healy wants to do this.
I'm not sure, either, why Healy navigates her story the way it finally wends. Pauline, already employed by Blind Johnny Knoll when Miss Haggis arrives in the household, launches a cunning and dirty campaign to get rid of her rival. We think that Eugenia will respond in kind; at first, she almost does. But then the balance of power tilts fairly decisively in one direction—and everyone involved is sent, almost as if by an otherwordly force, to an existential, possibly deserved, destiny.
The ending feels enigmatic, deliberately so. This all by itself is very likely Healy's modest point in this play. I'm not sure it's sufficient payoff for what comes before; I do know that because Healy seems so determined to keep us from empathizing with any of her characters that I finally didn't much care what happened to any of them.
Dearest Eugenia Haggis has been given an almost lavish mounting by Clubbed Thumb, particularly given the festival setting. Raul Abrego's set, consisting of a couple of rooms in Blind Johnny's home, is detailed and interesting; Josh Epstein's lighting is similarly vivid and evocative, and costumes by Anne Kenney provide a period flavor that Healy occasionally works against (why?) in her writing. Melissa Kievman's staging is precise and thoughtful. Matthew Cowles and Caitlin Miller as Blind Johnny Knoll and Pauline Khenghis create intriguing, fully-fleshed-out characters. Special mention needs to be made of Mara Stephens, as Eugenia Haggis, who stepped into the role less than a week before opening night and performs with almost miraculous assurance; even though occasionally still on book, she dominates the proceedings and makes the title character of this unusual and perhaps under-written play someone we wish we could know much, much better.