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Manbites Dog Theater has chosen for its latest production a three-woman play by Joel Drake Johnson entitled The Fall to Earth, a swift and deadly 95-minute play that keeps us asking questions until all of them are answered in one swift, decisive eruption. A mother and her estranged daughter enter their motel room in a small town distant from either’s home. Immediately, we sense the tension between them.
This is the kind of a play that has us asking those “W” kinds of reporter questions: who, what, when, where, why? We get who and when from the program; the who are Faye and Rachel, her adult, estranged daughter. The third member of the cast is a policewoman named Terri. The when is now, but you would never know it by the music; it’s all from the Fifties and Sixties. Faye, in what we know immediately is a very stressful time, uses this music, especially “Dancin’ in the Street,” to try to calm herself. This is only one of the many things that seem to drive her daughter to distraction.
Director Jeff Storer has chosen three very well-known talents in the Triangle. Faye is Marcia Edmundson, who is a mainstay in MDT plays and the co-founder of The ArtsCenter’s West End Theatre. Rachel is performed by a once-and-current Triangle actress with an ever-increasing resume, Dana Marks. Terri is portrayed by the co-founder of both hands productions, Cheryl Chamblee. These three women work together to form an ensemble that is both riveting and mesmerizing, handling all of the surprises that the author throws at us and lending a truly amazing amount of reality to the show. Under Storer’s direction, they bloom simultaneously, and create complex, deep characters, each with her own problems and secrets.
The rest of the questions of the “W” variety, the what, where, and why, either take the length of the play to get their answers, or they never get answered at all. The latter is where. We learn that Rachel and Faye have come to a small town in the mountains, somewhere in the U.S. We learn nothing that even differentiates which mountains they might be; we only know that Kenny, Faye’s son and Rachel’s younger brother, lived here until his death a few days ago. So that’s the why — or at least a portion of it. The remainder of why is the crux of the matter and the meat of the entire play.
It is impossible to go too far into the plot without giving away way too much. Suffice it to say that MDT and these three superb actresses give us surprise after surprise; keep us guessing and also on the edge of our seats; and do so in so realistic a fashion that where becomes an almost nagging question. But it is by far not the only question that we ask ourselves during the course of this short but explosive play.
We learn a lot about the other people in these women’s lives. Faye has left her husband at home; we know only that he was “unable” to make the trip. We learn that Rachel is recently divorced from Robert, the husband she had her only child with: a son named Jacob. Terri is married with two children, a daughter, 10, and a son, 7, who has a reading disability. But the one person in this play that is the most important is the one person we never see.
Kenny is perhaps the most complex of all these characters. Part of what we learn during this play is that the title, The Fall to Earth, refers to none of the actual cast, but to Kenny. It is a direct reference to the Fallen Angel, the one that retains a fatal flaw and is thus banned from heaven, and falls to earth. Kenny is the good boy, the fragile child, the one who loves “Animal Planet” and cries over injured or dead animals. But Kenny had his own fatal flaw, and his own ill-kept secrets. Everyone, it seems, knew the first secret: that Kenny was gay. Rachel knew, though she didn’t know Faye did. Even Terri, who did not know him well, knew it. But no one knew Kenny’s other secret outside the family: the secret he took to his grave with him. But in a play so filled with other people, this is actually Kenny’s play. The shocks and sorrows of this fallen angel make us hope and pray he has, against all odds, been accepted back into the solace from whence he came.
Manbites Dog Theater presents The Fall to Earth Thursday-Saturday, March 23-25 and March 30-April 1, at 8:15 p.m. and Sunday, March 26 and April 2, at 3:15 p.m. at 703 Foster St., Durham, North Carolina. $10 Thursday and $15 Friday-Sunday. 919/682-3343 or tix.com via the presenter's site. Manbites Dog Theater: http://www.manbitesdogtheater.org/2/.