How awful must it be when, because one is marginally retarded, at age 13 one is classified as morally defective - after being sexually abused and giving birth? To have one’s father call you an "F’n brat" and have that moniker replace one’s own name? To live most of one’s life institutionalized under the thumb of arcane Victorian rules and regulations, and then in later life be thrust into society and expected to adjust miraculously? How does one handle the confusion, the fright and the soul-destroying rage?
These are the questions that are explored in Valerie Windsor’s 1987 Effie’s Burning, an angry, yet eloquent, British drama recently given a wonderfully human production at the Manhattan Theatre Source. Windsor’s work (which tackles some of the same issues as Joe Penhall’s later Some Voices, also recently on the boards here in NYC), is a brief but sharp piece of writing; what could have been a mess of bathetic self-pity is instead a terse, compassionate dissection of two women, the titular Effie (nee Gloria) Palmer, an elderly patient in the burn unit of a British hospital in 1987, and her surgeon, the neophyte Dr. Ruth Kovacs, both of them lost in a bureaucratic system of prejudice and indifference.
Lacing the evening with a surprising sense of humor, Katherine Hewett’s immaculately clear direction stayed focused on the main issues of Windsor’s script. Without any unnecessary directorial flash to distract anyone, the evening was a refreshing display of intelligence that allowed for a total immersion in the performances of the two powerhouse actresses in the cast. Susan Scudder infused Effie with a raw emotional honesty; blithely detonating little bombshells about her past with a matter of fact simplicity, she drew Dr. Kovacs (and the audience) into her story with her gentle but devastating openness. It was a beautiful performance. Matching Scudder every step of the way, Kimberly Wright gave Dr. Kovacs a nervously determined air, a balancing act that was a marvel to behold. By slowly peeling away at Kovacs’s lack of confidence, she allowed her strengths to emerge naturally — by the end of the play Wright made it clear that Kovacs would be a doctor, and a woman, of substance, dignity, and humanity.
Only a hospital bed, a screen, and the bare brick walls of the theatre space conjured up a clinically severe environment; bright white lighting with subtle color variations suggested locations and times of day effectively; the costumes (a hospital gown for Effie, crisp business attire under a doctor’s jacket for Kovacs) were natural and to the point. (Resident set designer: Maruti Evans; resident lighting designer: David Comstock; Costumes uncredited.)
Just how Effie came to be in the burn unit was the central mystery that propelled the action, and when the reason was finally revealed it was neither a surprise nor was it expected. It was a credit to everyone involved that the complex issues of Windsor’s script were explored with such simple, innate intelligence and respect for the author, the performers and especially the audience. F’n great!
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Copyright 2001 Doug DeVita