We’re living in bad times now, and we’ve now got the pop culture to reflect it. We see vampires and werewolves everywhere on TV, offering dark worldviews, and the upsurge in zombie-ism reflects a growing sense of helplessness.
Seattle’s ACT Theatre adds to this dystopia with its new play, now running through May 4. Bethany is a grim one-act by Laura Marks. Its premise is simple: Crystal (Emily Chisholm) is out of a house, she’s lost custody of her daughter, Bethany, and her job selling Saturns is about to go the way of the dodo. In desperation, she finds a foreclosed house to squat in. Except the homeless drifter Gary (Darragh Kenna) already occupies it. In a different time with a different playwright–say, Neil Simon–this could have been the basis for raucous comedy, or a sex farce.
But Crystal desperately needs her daughter back, and Gary’s presence threatens that; but Gary desperately needs a quiet place, and he was there first, so these primal needs crash like rutting bull moose. Adding to this is Crystal’s other need, to close one last sale before the Saturn dealership folds, and Gary’s distrust of almost every one. The stakes elevate to the scale of a Greek tragedy. No buffoonery here.
This story reflects Marks’ own experience with layoffs and a crushing mortgage in her own life and she presents it so skillfully that it grips and resonates with audiences. Sadly, it also reflects the circumstances of many in this country, too. Marks never explicitly identifies the play’s setting, and the results were what she expected; she’s received comments from people all across the country telling her the play must have been set in whatever city they were living in.
Director John Langs likewise concurs. He’s the Assistant Artistic Director at ACT, and sees this show as fitting into this season’s theme of “the power of money and the remarkable human behavior that power creates,” according to his director’s notes.
And this production, under his skilled direction, is a worthwhile contribution. From acting to music, Langs makes everything work. Carey Wong’s minimalist set flows smoothly from kitchen to automobile showroom and Brendan Patrick Hogan’s sound design is an interesting, primal percussive score, full of unrest and unease.
Emily Chisholm’s performance as a woman veering from despair to hope to cougar-mom fury is riveting and she gives it all she’s got. Not once does she overact, but always keeps Crystal grounded in humanity, and believable. She delivered a strong performance earlier this season in Sugar Daddies, and if she can keep bringing performances like these, she’s welcome back at any time. Richard Ziman, previously seen in Double Indemnity, delivers a complex performance as a charismatic motivational speaker, as does Suzanne Bouchard’s icily cool Patricia and Jonelle Jordan, as Crystal’s Sales Manager, Shannon. Cynthia Jones makes an all-too-brief appearance as a social worker. Interestingly, the ‘Bethany’ in the title refers to Crystal’s unseen daughter: the hope and aspiration of her crumbling life.
The weak spot is Darragh Kennan’s Gary, the homeless man squatting in the house Crystal wants. The weakness is not in his performance but his character. Marks writes him as whacked-out, paranoid and mentally disturbed. She gives him depth and complexity, to be sure, but far too many homeless people are stereotyped as having mental problems. While there is some truth to that, Marks’ point in the play is that everyone is facing dire straits now, so her initial premise would have been stronger had Gary’s back story been closer to Crystal’s.
But this weakness does not detract from the power of the production. The play is still near-flawless, and definitely deserves an audience. Ours is not the time for catharsis with light fluff. Instead, we need to take paths through dark forests full of demons and witches to remind us of our shared burdens–that is our greatest strength right now and what art can do better than anything else.