Monroe, Illinois: Over Here/Townie
nytheatre.com review by Peter Schuyler
December 8, 2010
There is a myth about the bleakness of suburban life that many New Yorkers find very appealing. It assumes that everyone not living in the Big Apple wants to run screaming to the coasts from whatever supposed tract home gulag they were born into. It’s very appealing in the sense that we on this island off the coast of America use it to feel superior to those we believe to be “trapped” in the flyover states, chipping away at their grey little lives, never realizing their dreams and waking up at some point near their dotage wondering what the hell happened, why they never took their shot at greatness. I raise the point at the beginning of this review because I find the cumbersome title of Aaron Wigdor Levy’s excellently written companion one act plays to be an unnecessary extension of said myth.
Both plays are about family in middle class suburbia and the soul crushing minutiae that goes along with it. In Townie, She, a young woman on the day of her wedding recounts the events of the next 30 years of her life, all the highs and lows: marriage, infidelity, children, divorce, petty grudges—all that is ugly and a little of what is beautiful about living the life you thought you wanted. Over Here is the story of a dysfunctional (is there any other kind anymore?) family preparing for a funeral. Nora, the estranged daughter has returned home to bury her father. She and her brother Danny had no great love for the man, due in no small part to their bully of a mother, Patty. Patty’s palpable rancor is fueled by her disappointment in her children’s life choices, her disappointment in herself, her grief over the loss of her husband. She has built a rose colored castle wall of revisionist history around what was a very rocky marriage, and any assault by her children on the battlements is met with withering personal attacks.
Levy has written a great evening of theatre. He states in the program that these plays are the product of trying to deal with a loss, and that depth of emotion and grief charge the pieces with an arresting energy. There is something for everyone to identify with here, the characters being so well crafted and the situations so familiar and true. One only has to look to the audience reaction to see the evidence; many times during the evening I could hear people wincing and gasping at a particularly cutting remark, or quietly nodding in recognition at something that struck close to home.
On the Square Productions has put together a solid crew mostly up to the task at hand. Deborah Wolfson’s direction does hinder the show in places with odd blocking and pacing. It’s clear she has solid understanding of the emotional life of the show, but it isn’t always effectively communicated by the staging.
Becka Hackett opens the evening with Townie; performing an hour-long monologue is no easy feat, and unfortunately she seemed to be struggling with the weight of it. For most of the piece she was speeding through the beats, which felt more like recitation than performance. Occasionally she would break into an area of raw emotion, but against the backdrop of her largely clinical delivery these moments seemed forced. Hackett has a naturally warm presence and I hope that she capitalizes on that in future performances. There is a great performance in her and if she treated the piece more as a marathon than a sprint I think she and the audience would be very pleasantly surprised.
The second half of the evening really comes to life with Over Here, driven by the absolutely fantastic performances of Rachel McPhee as Nora and Cyrilla Baer as Patty. McPhee, from the moment she takes the stage is present and engaging, and her performance only gets better once Baer joins her. The air in the theatre crackles with the contempt these characters have for each other and my hat's off to these two for creating a relationship so complex and familiar. Doug Roland’s quietly acted Danny sets a nice undercurrent to Nora and Patty’s fireworks, as he is merely a bystander in the epic battle between them.
Technically the show is very sound. Greg Watsby's modular set design evokes both locations very well, though his sound design telegraphs the punches of each play a little too much. Mikey Goodmark's costumes go a long way aid in the storytelling; I specifically enjoyed the moment in Townie when Hackett doffs her jeans and puts on sweatpants—the first sure sign a person has given up on life.
So back to that myth... do these plays need to be site specific to Illinois? I don’t think so. The themes and characters being so universal, these plays could be almost anywhere in America, from Brooklyn to Yakima Valley. Loss, desperation, and redemption don’t exist wholly in the Midwest and frankly the show would be more marketable without the parenthetical.
I saw these plays on their opening night and I chalk a lot of what I didn’t like up to jitters and lack of confidence. On the Square should be proud and confident, they’ve got a great show on their hands, they just need to trust it and get the hell out of its way. If you’re hungry for good drama during the holiday season, these shows are a must see.