If there is anything more pleasurable to this writer than bearing witness to a fine new play, it’s the satisfaction of recommending it to others without reservation. Thanks to the Seattle playwright Jeanmarie Williams, her exhilarating comic drama Vanishing Marion, and the superb production it’s receiving via StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, both delights are mine this week.
Under StreetSigns artistic director Joseph Megel’s brisk and sensitive direction—no, that’s not oxymoronic—and cast just about to perfection, Vanishing Marion’s world premiere (continuing April 13-16 and 20-23 in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) is a smashing success. Williams’ play is moving, funny, and bracing in both its intelligence and its acute representation, not of recognizable human types, but of absolute human beings.
Food — or the eschewing of it — is an important motif in Vanishing Marion, but for the eponymous central figure, the nourishment sought is often of a very different sort. Adrift in the private academy at which she is a scholarship student, Marion neither fits in nor seems to want to. Nothing breeds conformity quite like school, yet even the most dedicated individualist craves acceptance and companionship. Then too there is the yearning for knowledge and expression. Marion contrasts sharply with the extremities embodied by her schoolmates: bored, bitchy self-interest versus frightened self-denial on one extreme, class-conscious academic obsession contrasted with determined pedantry on the other.
Home provides no succor either. There’s Marion’s twin brother Brian, but despite the pair’s conversational codes (the ironic use of pop-culture, Western clichés) and occasional horseplay, they’re moving in separate directions. Their hapless sister Leslie has descended on the household after the collapse of her marriage, and their widowed mother Rita is so unable to connect with her children she can’t comfort them without becoming paralyzed by the sheer alienness of physical contact. Confronted with the desperate hug of a weeping Leslie, she can only murmur, “Ok, now. That’s good. Okay,” as she pats her daughter with frozen distraction.
Marion’s unlikely savior, the casually rebellious Lucia, releases something vital in the girl, even as she unthinkingly betrays her. Likewise, the small and relentlessly solemn daughter of a neighbor — also fatherless — provides a crucial link to feeling for the somnambulant Leslie. Yet these little progressions, in Williams’ deft fingers, are neither unearned nor wholly triumphant. Vanishing Marion is the furthest thing from the type of standard fare in which all problems are vanquished by the eleven o’clock appearance of loosened affection, except on the periphery.
Mengel’s quick-silver staging, like Rob Hamilton’s superbly rendered set with its cheerless wallpaper and a dining table at which no one ever eats, brims with nimble invention. And his beautifully assembled cast is about as good as it is possible to imagine.
As the Talbot School students, Tiera L. Parker, Noelle Barnard, Sarah Roach, and Hannah Bennett unerringly run the often amusing yet authentic gamut of that hermetically-sealed powder keg of barely-repressed volatility we call the American high school. Aside from her almost supernal beauty, Melora Rivera’s Lucia is exquisitely poised; and her performance contains exactly the right combination of amused insouciance and relaxed pretension.
With her innate intelligence and peerless comic delivery, the ever-delicious Amy Flynn makes such a meal of her brief appearance as the family’s caustic neighbor Carole she leaves you gasping in admiration. And as Carole’s enigmatic and curiously mesmerizing daughter, Amelia Allore is adorably somber without once tipping into the abyss of the kind of childish lovability so beloved of talents far less accomplished than Jeanmarie Williams.
Sarah Kocz, whose work grows more impressive with each new role, makes Leslie a walking dream in more ways than one. Seemingly the most lost of the women, her very domesticity in the face of the family’s offhand squalor touchingly absurd, Leslie is in some odd way the play’s peripatetic beating heart. Kocz locates in her plangent, adaptable stoicism a kind of guileless, transcendent beauty, a strength of character so keen it buoys us all.
As for the indomitable but emotionally frozen Rita, no dimension, however well concealed, eludes the indispensable Elisabeth Lewis Corley’s expert illumination. Although Rita is a role of relative brevity in the play, Corley’s performance is as controlled as Rita’s own tamped-down emotion yet so subtly revealing of concealed feeling as to break the heart with its very impassivity. Hollis Wansley’s Marion is beyond praise. She navigates the character’s emotional extremes with a laser-like precision; she is by turns acidic, funny, livid and pitiable without recourse to any special pleading. She merely is. Wansley, like the play itself, is never less than deeply, verifiably human.
If I say that Gabriel Graetz’s Brian is less sterling than polished brass by comparison, it’s largely because in an otherwise all-female company, the character himself isn’t drawn with quite the same sharpness and acuity. Except that he provides a crucial twist in Williams’ plot, Brian is almost an unnecessary evil in an otherwise exemplary work of theatrical brilliance of which I cannot urge you strongly enough to partake. Theater this good is as rare as perfect love. Go, and fall deeply.
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance presents Vanishing Marion Thursday-Saturday, April 13-15 and 20-22, at 8 p.m.; and Sunday, April 16 and 23, at 3 p.m. in Studio 6 Theater in Swain Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $12-$14. 919/843-3865. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08].