It's been more than two decades since the mysterious Jane Martin burst onto the scene with Talking With, a radically new type of drama consisting of 10 monologues, each done by a woman and each employing a symbolically charged prop. There was a great deal of huggery muggery about who Jane Martin was and whether, in fact, she existed. Jon Jory, quondam artistic director of the Actors Theater of Louisville, Ky., where almost all of Martin's plays premiered, was rumored to be the "real" Jane Martin. However, the mild-mannered metteur-en-scene vehemently denied he had a secret identity as the wonder woman of the Humana New Play Festival. Even now, you can scour the Internet in search of a biography or, God forbid, a photo. You get a reference to "the reclusive Kentuckian." Period. Most peculiar.
In any case, director Fred Nuccio recently gathered 10 remarkable ladies for a revival of Talking With at True Brew, and, while the format no longer astonishes with its freshness, the characters and their situations are still fascinating.
The first two monologues are darkly humorous curtain-raisers. In "Audition," an actress (Tracie Collins) -- playing to the audience as though to the production staff -- threatens to off her cat if she doesn't get the part. "15 Minutes," the second piece, is also set backstage. This time, an actress (Daina Gozan), while putting on her makeup, meditates on what it means to be "an entertainment" and imagines having "bios" of the audience -- so she would be on an equal footing with them.
However, in the third piece, "Clear Glass Marbles," a woman (Lara Grice) calls us up short with a carefully controlled, poignant reminiscence of her dying mother who took to her bed and dropped a marble on the floor at the end of each day. In "Rodeo," a cowgirl (the convincingly gritty Rene Maxwell) tells how she became obsolete when marketing transformed a country sport into Disneyfied Western Hokum. By the time the naive, deranged (or possibly mystical) twirler (Veronica Russell) closes the first act, we have drifted off into that jittery realm, described by William Carlos Williams, where "the pure products of America go crazy."
There, we are fated to remain. In "Lamps," a gentle, sweet old thing (Lauren Swinney) spends her time rhapsodically wandering in an attic, playing with lamps. In "Handler," an Appalachian evangelical (the remarkably genuine Karen Shield) waxes philosophical about good, evil and poisonous serpents. "Scraps" offers a housewife (Jennifer Richardson) who has retreated into a fantasyland based on the Oz books. The lonely lady in "Marks" (Tari Hohn Lagasse) has chronicled her tardily discovered ability to feel in a tattoos frieze of sordid liaisons. By comparison, the cheery dementia of the poor, elderly black woman of "French Fries" (Troi Bechet) -- for whom McDonald's is the closest we poor mortals can get to the eternal -- offers an uplifting nostalgia for the Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave.
There was a similar feeling of the offbeat grown somewhat familiar in another recent outing. Misery -- The Play, directed by Anthony Bean at the community theater bearing his name, was the New Orleans premiere of a stage adaptation of "Stephen King's Classic Thriller."
Curiously, the familiarity took more of a toll on the set-up than the climax -- at least, for me. The story -- for any who have not read, viewed or absorbed it by osmosis -- concerns Paul Sheldon, a writer of romance fiction (played with a marvelous, beleaguered aplomb by Shriff Hasan), who is rescued from his wrecked car in the middle of the snow-bound Midwest by Annie Wilkes, a sadistic psychopath. As luck would have it, Annie (a mercurial, volcanic Claudia Baumgarten) is also his "greatest fan." Utterly disgusted by the serious, experimental novel Sheldon has just busted his brains to write, she holds him prisoner and coerces him to go back to his formulaic pulp (and ironically, to accept his true gift).
Trying to create the Alfred Hitchcock-like suspense a story like this demands, live and onstage, requires the kind of rash temerity that made the aged, one-legged Sarah Bernhardt take on the role of Hamlet.
I have to admit, though, my heart was in my throat several times in the second act, when -- during Annie's brief and unpredictable absences -- Hasan, muttering encouragement to himself, edged his wheelchair through the forbidden rooms of her home.
The sprawling set (by Anthony Favre), which at first seemed bizarre and irrelevant, proved to be remarkably effective. For it was through this handicap-unfriendly maze that the crippled writer had to propel himself -- with his ears (like ours) alert for the sound of the front doorknob turning.
- Annie Wilkes (Claudia Baumgarten) provides a scary muse for novelist Paul Sheldon (Shriff Hasan) in Anthony Bean's production of Misery -- The Play.