Nasty, brutish, and short
Written by Roseanna Beth Whitlow
Directed by Misti B. Wills
Ryan Repertory Company (http://www.ryanrep.org/)
Non-union production (closed April 19, 2008)
Review by Adam Cooper
Life is tough for suicidal college student Lisa Taylor (Jae Kramisen). Depressed and detached, she feels no one in her life would be affected if she departed from this world, potentially through the misuse of her father’s firearm. So Lisa decides to announce her intentions via an archetypal scream for help: she writes about her suicidal state for her midterm essay assignment.
With hair pulled tightly back and a persistent grimace on her face, Erin Layton plays stern and schoolmarmish Professor Jo Garrett, whom Lisa reaches out to for some kind of assistance. In a harsh response to Lisa’s pathetic plea, Jo lashes out at Lisa by moving to have her forcibly transferred to another section of this core course. Lisa resists this cruel abandonment by demanding that Jo at least grade the essay as a basis for which to matriculate into another teacher’s section mid-semester. Jo remarkably obliges, treating Lisa and the audience to a recitation of constructive criticisms on the fine art of expository essay writing as applied to Lisa’s poorly written excuse of a suicide note. Not too surprisingly it is Jo who learns a lesson about dealing with her own suicidal associations as the two face off sarcastically, condescendingly, and repetitiously over feelings and fears, purportedly compelling one another to deal with deep-seated yet unfelt insecurities and painful memories.
Roseanna Beth Whitlow’s playlet is essentially a textbook case of a novice playwright’s early draft project for Playwriting 101 posing as a final polished production. Clocking in at around 40 minutes, this extended scene, which could have been lifted from Lifetime Network for Women, is replete with many of the pitfalls exhibited by beginning writers. In addition to having a predictable plot and static dialogue, the characters are thinly drawn and lacking in specificity. There are the proverbial moments of revelation, heavy-handedly underlined by Misti B. Wills’s direction, and the forced symbolism, such as the eponymous thistle blossoms, and the deep meaning messages, including the wisdom that killing oneself kills others. The lack of innovation makes one wonder what alternative treatment could have been executed with the material. Fundamentally, though, the production’s fatal flaw is the unbelievable conceit that a university professor would unaccountably respond with such menacing machinations and didactical essay writing lessons to a student who is in-the-moment contemplating killing herself.
Barbara Parisi’s set design of a college office/classroom, which includes books on a staircase and posters on the walls (including one of the Brat Pack actors from the 1980’s high school film The Breakfast Club!) looks more at home in a public middle school than in a northeastern university. Ironically, the one book that stands out in the bookshelves, a text that argues much more convincingly for self-reliance and personal empowerment, is Henry David Thoreau’s Walden.
Copyright 2008 by Adam Cooper
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