It's tough for a work of art to say anything novel about terminal illness nowadays -- the subject makes some people roll their eyes -- and unfortunately David Epstein's Strange Attractions has little new to say about this human condition. Still, the production was worthwhile largely because of the play's waspish humor and the excellent performances of its actors.
The play starts with a blast of light and punk-rock music. A girl dressed in Goth gear (Maggie Bell) sits at a dining-room table and waits for a pregnancy test to determine her future. This is 19-year-old, unmarried, alcoholic, promiscuous, talented but prospectless Lina, the messed-up center of her family. It becomes quickly clear, with the appearance of her sister Sam's fiance Jerry (Gerry Lehane), that Lina hates everyone and everything. She's sarcastic, disrespectful, and foul-mouthed, and quickly wears on the nerves. Matters aren't helped with the arrival of eldest sister Margo (Jennifer Baines) after an absence of about a decade. Though she looks glowingly healthy and wealthy, with her perfectly painted nails, tasteful makeup, pearl necklace and slightly affected North Shore accent, Margo's dying of cancer and has come to tie up ends that are looser than anyone can imagine. Lina sasses her immediately; and Sam (Elizabeth Horn), who's nearly as snide and potty-mouthed as Lina, at first coldly ignores her. Even the revelation of Margo's impending death fails to thaw Sam out. Surely, spending any time with Lina or Sam (or worse, both of them) is an ordeal. Part of Jerry and Margo's determination to stick with these twisted sisters stems, in part, from a desire to be punished.
Of course, nothing is as it seems, and though the women speak, rather preemptively, of cliches, writer/director Epstein can't avoid them. Yet even the cliches surrounding approaching death and gobsmacking family revelations aren't fatal to the play. Lina and Sam's nastiness hides deep-seated pain, and Bell, with her huge green eyes and slouchy posture, gave the audience glimpses of the abandoned little girl that Lina still is. The premature responsibility of having to raise Lina after their parents' deaths (with zero help from the well-married Margo) has made Sam closed-off and punitive even towards her fiance -- her ample bosom has grown stony. Baines made an effective and sympathetic Margo; perhaps those vigorous looks were simply a reflection of her being at that stage where a cancer patient, having lost some weight and not having reached the end-stage disease, looks fit. Lehane, playing a cop with his own unhappy secrets, had the hangdog look of a guy who wants to do the right thing and fails. J.T. Patton was also excellent as the tutor who knows how to handle Lina's defensive snarkiness, and thus intrigues her. The play's title comes from his trying to explain a complicated mathematical theory during their non-tutoring session. Matt Walker was heartbreaking during his all-too-brief appearance as Margo's loving, grief-stricken husband.
As a director, Epstein allowed the tension between the women to edge toward the threat of violence; there was a pervasive feeling that someone was going to get slapped, or worse. His sisters touched each other reluctantly, and even when Sam snuggled up to Jerry there was something perfunctory about it (as for violence, she did bite him, not quite lovingly). The incidental music between blackouts featured songs of longing and despair. The tacky furnishings, especially the corner of a rickety table dedicated to bottles of hard liquor, spoke of a scrappy, working-class family that's reached a dead end. Save for the flashbulb blasts at the play's beginning and end, Jason. J. Rainone's lighting design was steady and conservative. The plot of Strange Attractions might not rise much above a disease-of-the-week movie, but not for lack of trying.
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Copyright 2004 Arlene McKanic