nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 4, 2008
Melissa McNamara is a singular performer; check out her show Leaving Normal at FRIGID to find out why. Here's a short list of what I admired most about her.
Her physicality is impressive and always seems organic (she incorporates all manner of complicated movement into her show, stuff that feels like the province of a trained dancer or gymnast but nevertheless feels natural for her characters to do; at one point, for example, she actually stuffs herself into a suitcase. And closes it.)
Her ease and interaction with audience members is more dynamic and personal than just about anyone's I've ever seen who wasn't portraying him- or herself. In character, she engages those in the room with her in conversation and, more interestingly, in play (by which I mean, what children do). For example, she assumes the persona of a waitress in a Bus Stop-py diner, and mimes brewing a pot of coffee; then she pours out a cup (into an imaginary mug) and hands it to someone in the first row. "Here's your coffee," she says. And then she moves to the next person in the audience (yours truly, in this particular case). "Do you want a refill?"
And so I held up my imaginary cup, and she poured out the imaginary coffee. We engaged; we played. She does this kind of thing throughout her show, and its magical.
Now, trying to peg what Leaving Normal is about with any degree of fluency is tough. It's a character-driven one-woman play, I guess, in which McNamara principally plays a troubled, insecure young woman named Eileen who is on a journey from and to unknown places. She also portrays the waitress I mentioned (Eileen is a co-worker of hers in the diner); and Bill, the bus driver who is that waitress's beau and also, presumably, the conductor of the bus on which Eileen is taking her journey.
What happens to these people is less important than the glimpses into their personalities and spirits that McNamara provides. Her writing is quirky and interesting and erratic; its shape feels more like poetry than drama to me, and so if I have to expostulate a theme I will do so by simply noting Leaving Normal's motifs: buses, cats, rain, hearts.
Director Emily Morwen keeps the pace brisk and steady without overwhelming us. Some of the movement sections—especially where McNamara has to twirl around the two suitcases-on-wheels that are her only props—are hard for a single performer to manage on her own. But the show overall is so intensely good-hearted, thanks to McNamara's strong, warm stage presence, that any imperfections are easily overlooked.
Leaving Normal is a great introduction to this talented actor/performer, and I hope we will see more of McNamara in the future.