The Secret Agenda of Trees
nytheatre.com review by Robin Reed
March 18, 2009
After a long day at the meat packing plant, Maggie knocks off to a bar, has a few drinks, and gets friendly with a stranger named Jack. She brings him home; they get high on meth on the front porch and when she learns he has no place to spend the night but his car, she invites him in, to her home, to her life and to the life of her 14-year old daughter, Veronica.
Playwright Colin McKenna has hung his play The Secret Agenda of Trees upon three very broken characters, only one of whom, the precocious Veronica, has any hope of becoming a whole person as she has not yet succumbed to the utter hopelessness of her environment. Mom spends her days ankle-deep in slaughter and her nights in a cloud of booze and drugs, and in her choice of Jack, among other things, we see that the well-being of her daughter is the last thing on her mind.
Though McKenna has found some beauty in Veronica's teen angst, infusing her language with poetry and a flair for the performative, this play could stand to rethink or just lose a number of elements. The role of Carlos might be better served by remaining a figment of Veronica's poetic, out-loud daydreams. He is her first foray into the shadow of her mother's footsteps: she pines to be close to him, a boyfriend so horrifically textbook-bad for her—at 13, the greatest accomplishment of his young life is his upcoming induction into a gang via a quick yet violent beating by members of said gang. According to actor Christian Navarro's bio, this is his "first shot" and though his heart is obviously in it, an under-experienced actor in an underwritten role does not serve the production.
Nor do the sketches of the role of Veronica's brother Dixon, a soldier in the Iraq War, to whom she also opines poetically her dreams of something different than the life in which she finds herself trapped. The one scene he is in does nothing more than unnecessarily put a face to Veronica's poetry.
The three more fully-fleshed out roles, though, are not without problems in this production. As Maggie and Jack, Lillian Wright and Michael Tisdale are acting their hearts out, but are not rough enough around the edges for their roles. Tisdale affects a stilted gait which, to a certain extent, has him faring better than the fairly polished Wright who, even with a pretty solid accent, would be more believable in any Shakespearean role than as a strung out hick. Costume designer Jessica Gaffney would have done well to outfit her in something other than a smart, if inexpensive, blazer, straggle out her hair and weather her face with some age make-up, but at the end of the day, Wright is simply not believable.
It is only Reyna de Courcy who flies anywhere near believable as Veronica. She taps directly into the meat of the role, finding the balance where the fading precociousness of an early teen meets the exploding adult thoughts and feelings, neither of which she is yet equipped to deal. There are times where de Courcy walks the line between charming quirky and annoying quirky, but she ultimately gives a winning performance.
Director Michael Kimmel keeps things moving at a fairly good pace until the very end, where multiple false endings leave the audience bracing for the end-of-show applause three times before things are finally wrapped up. This is another "back to the drawing board" point for the playwright, though the lights-down/lights-up direction makes for a clunky stop-only-to-start-again ending.