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Anyone who has ever kicked around the idea of being an actor and taken themselves seriously enough to enroll in a class has taken the class. The class with the heady instructor who asks you to engage in uncomfortable exercises without explaining their purpose, the class designed to facilitate a oneness with the group and with yourself by forcing you to relive intimate or painful memories, the class with at least one person who knows and executes every exercise with military precision, determined that they will reach transcendence as an artist and that they will do it faster than you. As uncomfortable and challenging as these classes are, most of us learn at least a little something about ourselves and those we participate with but moreover we learn to accept and affirm one another, flaws and all.
In Circle Mirror Transformation, recently produced by Raleigh Ensemble Players, playwright Annie Baker draws five strangers together with a commonality of the class. Through a series of snapshots from weeks one and two, we learn that James, played by John Honeycutt, is probably there only to support his wife, Marty, played by Jillian Holmquist, the class instructor. Theresa, played by Page Purgar, has lived the life of a New York actress and seeks a more fulfilling way to perform. Lauren, a sixteen-year-old high school student, played by Ros Schwartz, wants the lead in her school play. Schultz, a broken divorced man, played by Brian Yandle, wants a fresh start. As Marty leads them through the exercises each week, we learn how the characters have arrived at their current situations and laugh along with them as they stumble through awkward and challenging activities. As an actress playing an actress, Purgar is well equipped to apply an eagerness and open-mindedness to Theresa as she recovers from her life and relationship in New York City. When she allows Schultz into her world in week three, with his gawky yet winning sincerity, a new layer of transformation develops. As the relationship deteriorates in weeks four and five, we must add another layer to our observations and analyze the weaknesses appearing as we learn more about each person. Well cast in the role of James, Honeycutt provides a paternal sort of care for his classmates in the early weeks of the class, only to shock them with his declaration of love for Theresa in week five. Ros Schwartz brings the perfect temperament to the insecure Lauren, in the throes of her high school years with parents who don't understand her. Schwartz grows Lauren's character subtly and appropriately. An unlikely candidate to provide closure with a final dialogue, Lauren does just that. In a ten-years-older version of herself, Lauren speaks with confidence then in more words than we had heard from her in the entire show.
We learn how the strengths and weaknesses uncovered in the six-week class have shaped each member into functional, if not better, people. Director Glen Matthews turns the stage into the mirror of society that theatre so often becomes. Audience members are allowed to see themselves in each of the characters onstage. We learn that, flawed as we may be, we can accept each other and grow together into better versions of ourselves.
The run has ended at REP, but the play will be staged in Asheville, starting 3/28; for details, click here.