Saturday, January 31, 2009

opening-night review of *The Women of Lockerbie*

(at the Civic's Studio Theatre through Feb. 22)

Grief Tolled and Retold

A group of people gathered in a circle, bearing witness to a ritual. Lips pursed, shoulders hunched, eyes averted from the racking sobs of a mother overwhelmed by grief. Her son has been dead these seven years. The sadness is almost more than the people watching her can bear.
*The Women of Lockerbie* (through Feb. 22) concentrates the enormity of terrorists' mass murder into a shared, communal event. Playwright Deborah Brevoort's dramatic lament is capable of great power when shared in a small room with dozens of others.
But it squanders emotional impact with obvious and unnatural exposition and with a Greek chorus device that too often intrudes to explain everything we just witnessed. And one of the central performances in the Civic's production stands outside grief, as if observing sadness, not enacting it.
Bill and Madeline Livingston led a comfortable middle-class life until a nightmare scenario exploded into their lives: Seven years ago, a terrorist's bomb on Pan Am 103 had incinerated their adult son, leaving no trace at all. The residents of the Scottish town which was the crash site offer comfort and consolation, but Bill remains stoic, and Madeline is still tearing her hair out.
Or should be, which is the problem: Kate Vita needs to let go more in the role, let her grief and anger overflow. It's an overwhelming task, like being asked to do Lady Macbeth's mad scene without a warm-up. But the actress playing Madeline has to hit an emotional peak at the outset. Vita instead offers a kind of ironic detachment, as if still in denial. (She's surprised to hear that she always used to get angry over what she'd like to recall instead as endearing moments that she shared with her son.) Perhaps Vita is playing the perfectionistic side of Madeline's character: She was a perfect housewife, a perfect mother, and now she needs to be show-off perfect in her grief.
But the chorus underlines her every mood change (telling us unnecessarily that Madeline, in hyper-grief mode, resembles a tree split down the middle by lightning). Again and again, they explain mood changes just as things start to get emotionally interesting, undermining the scenes' intensity.
In contrast, as the grieving father, Kevin Connell earns his grief by keeping it under control at first. After he informs the Lockerbie women (and us) that his wife has been on a seven-year crying jag and is now wandering the Scottish moors, wildly searching for clothes (of her son's) that will never be found, watch for Connell's look of resignation and averted eyes as he delegates to strangers the painful task of dealing with his own wife. A speech about returning Adam's clothes to unaware department store clerks constrains the anger and sadness, even though you can see it boiling behind his eyes. A speech about religious doubt -- about how God must be absent, about how there is no "lesson" in Adam's death, because that would mean he had died just to enlighten his father -- gains power from being delivered by a real-life Jesuit. And later, Connell scuttles across the stage, frantic, getting in his wife's face, imploring her to let go of Adam and hold on to the man in her family who's still alive. You could hear his labored breathing; you sensed the emotional price it had all exacted.
Connell has the less demanding job -- constrain, restrain, then explode -- as opposed to Vita's need to be frantic/angry/desperate, then cling to that intensity until nearly the play's end. Yet Vita's performance still has several good moments. When she heard about the explosion, she says, Madeline had been rolling pie dough, just "the way my mother taught me" -- and Vita's tenderness in the moment encapsulates just how much a parent's love means, how awful it is when that bond is broken.
As the leader of the Lockerbie chorus, Marianne McLaughlin has an intensity that pierces the unnaturalism of the trio's sometimes clich├ęd chanting. There's anguish on her face, though it's kept in check until a late-play revelation creates one of her most riveting moments.
Director Sara Edlin-Marlowe keeps the energy circulating in the Studio's theater-in-the-round intimacy, even if the three-woman chorus often walks, sits, stands too much in unison, like an over-choreographed trio of woe. She varies her use of the four exit-entrances in Peter Hardie's set, providing a sense of offstage action and using elevations well to emphasize when characters are dominant or downtrodden. She inserts some playful dances and some startling confrontations that relieve the gloom. (Sitting in an audience of Americans while hearing that Americans can be such damn know-it-alls has a humbling effect. We don't know everything there is to know about grieving -- or anything else.)
Jan Wanless and Susan Berger provide scarves and tweeds that make you feel the chill of the North Sea wind. Hardie's lighting scheme, however, sometimes brightens and darkens obtrusively, straining too hard to affect mood.
Brevoort's drama is still effective as a communal, ritualistic experience, and *Lockerbie* offers two piercing images near its end: bleeding flesh becomes a symbol of the self-hatred that turns to masochism when hatred for others is harbored for a long time. And in a final gesture of generosity and healing, grief is mitigated when finally the focus falls away from me, me, me, my grief to the concerns of others. In this world, no one's sadness is unique.
It was deeply affecting to watch the Livingstons, each in their own way, try to fend off a pain that would not go away -- and eventually to get the best of it. (Or at least much of it.) The Civic's production offers a couple of outstanding performances and several good ones, and it's undeniably affecting to see a married couple (along with an entire town) ripping out their hearts as they try to stifle hatred and replace it with a love of life, a willingness to continue the daily struggle. But uneven acting and a script that explains too much keep the Civic's *Lockerbie* from being a completely enthralling experience.

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At January 31, 2009 4:26 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw this performance and I thought the playwrights choice of a chorus was riveting.I guess it comes down to personal taste but I found the choice moving and compelling.What a great evening of theatre.As an actor it makes you want to perform when you see these kind of performances.This was a very good review but I'm sorry you didn't get the premise.Wonderful show cast of Lockerbie!

At February 02, 2009 12:50 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with Bowen about 98% on this review - Vita did need to balance out the great performance by Connell - she needed to be bigger in the beginning and then come to grips in the end. Most performers don't like to start out on top because they feel it leaves them nowhere to go (something BoBo mentions WAY TOO MUCH). But I do think she needed more oomph! Kate is a solid actress and is at least committed to her choice. As for the chorus and chorus movement, I think BoBo missed the point on that.

At February 02, 2009 10:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto,On the last comment.Well written review but Bowen missed on his understanding of the chorus whose performances elevated the show to an original and edgy place.I think it's hard to go beyond the traditional for some theatre goers.Excellent cast of strong performers.

At February 03, 2009 1:56 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I thought it was an uneven performance. Some of it, particularily Connell was wonderful, but it didn't all add up. It's tough to see a performance that is enlightening and thrilling next to flat and unenvolved performances. I think the use of the chorus was good, but the problem lies with the script. We've seen this device used before and better (starting with Antigone and going straight through to Man for All Seasons). The fault is with the playwright, not the director, actors or critic.

At February 04, 2009 5:36 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed with last comment.Great production but uneven at times.Mclaughlin also a stand out!

At February 09, 2009 1:52 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great show...liked it a lot. Mclaughlin was a stand out and so was Connell. I think Civic is taking the wrong show to competition.

At February 09, 2009 7:54 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just saw the performance this past weekend and was not overly impressed....
Good, solid show but nothing stunning or stellar. Mclauphlin had one or two really strong moments but for the most part I felt the show was flat. The chorus was...okay. The Government guy was in the wrong show and Connell/Vita had a weak relationship.
Its a nice show but not many will be talking about after few weeks.

At February 11, 2009 12:48 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow ,You of course are entitled to your opinion but oh my goodness did we see the same show! This was a stellar show!One of the best I've seen in a long time.Could there have been improvements ,yes but for the most part a real treat.This is a show I won't soon forget and everyone who loves theatre should go see it.

At February 11, 2009 1:13 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sounds to me like the show is having uneven performances, good one night, not so good the next. It sure happens.

At February 11, 2009 1:35 PM , Blogger Bobo the Theater Ho said...

Bobo wants to clarify a point made on Feb. 2, above.
I probably DO overuse the assertion that actors shouldn't begin a performance at the highest pitch.
But I was making opposite points about Cuckoo's Nest and Lockerbie. In my opinion (which is quite fallible), in Cuckoo's Nest, Will Lund made the mistake at the outset of making Chief Bromden too shrill and desperate, which the effect of undercutting and devaluing the manic raging that he needs to do later. (But Will's final "I been away for a long time" was haunting, as was the rip-out-the-electric-box sequence.)
I was trying to make the OPPOSITE point about Kate Vita at the outset of Lockerbie, where I felt she wasn't tear-her-hair-out distraught enough. The difficulty with Madeline is that she has to be at 110 percent right off the bat. But that's just my view.
Similarly, late in her play, Kate (like Will) was haunting in the skipping-over-the-brook sequence (enacting how random life and death are) and in the final, silent clothes-washing bit.


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