The premise of Timothy Nolan's taut and thoughtful new play What's In a Name is quite provocative: A woman has lived quietly as a single mom in NYC for thirty years, working steadily at a job at J. Crew, totally dedicated to raising her son, who is now grown and an attorney. But she hasn't slept well, not one single night in all of those thirty years, because she's been living a lie. Her name, her identity, everything is false—all assumed after she fled the scene of a crime perpetrated by her boyfriend, who shot a cop while she was driving the getaway car. She went underground and reinvented herself. But can the reinvention stick?
What's In a Name plumbs the details of this situation with real invention and insight. The journey that has brought this woman to such a singular place in life is explored in depth; Nolan does a terrific job filing in the blanks not only of how she got there but how she has built and maintained a kind of house of cards to protect her new, fragile identity.
The brilliance of Nolan's work here is its immediacy: he puts us directly into his protagonist's position (and shoes), and makes us confront the difficult question she is (mostly unsuccessfully) trying to grapple with. Should she confess her background to her son? Should she turn herself in to the police? Can she just keep going on living this assumed life? What's In a Name stimulated great post-show conversation among myself and my companion as we debated these issues. After thirty years, what good would it do to tell the truth, especially at the very likely expense of her son's happiness and reputation? Or is the Truth the most important thing here?
See or read this play (or both) and then have your own great discussion. Nolan raises important, fundamental issues that resonate perhaps even more today in the age of the Internet than they would have twenty years ago, when the events on which he based this work actually transpired. (You can read about the basis for the play in our interview with Nolan here).
What's In a Name is currently being presented by Variations Theatre Group at one of NYC's newest venues, the Chain Theatre in Long Island City (most welcome and most welcoming!). Under the direction of Greg Cicchino, the production is exciting and effective, featuring a highly emotional performance by Maria Deasy as Susan Price, the woman who has been living under an assumed identity all these years. Sutton Crawford is fine as the young police officer who is trying to help her but who, in Susan's feverish imagination, may be her worst enemy. Lenny Thomas is sexy and menacing as the young man who led Susan to commit her criminal act, and Lauren Roth portrays the character Nolan simply calls "Em," a waitress who morphs into many of the important figures from Susan's past. This production offers a well-realized naturalistic approach to the material; I suspect that the play is such that other approaches, with a less realistic set and performance style, could also work well.
It's absolutely worth seeing, and also a piece that deserves a long life in productions elsewhere. It turns out that there is quite a bit in a name: we always have to face the person we see in the mirror every morning, whoever we've convinced the rest of the world that we are.