Sunday, October 07, 2007

PLAY: "When the Messenger is Hot"

Photo/Jay Geneske

I haven't read When the Messenger is Hot, the book of short stories by Elizabeth Crane that has been adapted by Laura Eason and developed by Steppenwolf Theatre Company (now visiting from Chicago as part of the 59E59 GoChicago! Festival). But lines like "watching the morning sun glint off his crack-pipe made me realize that maybe Steven and I weren't meant to be" easily make the jump from print to stage, the sort of self-conscious poetry that the narrator of her own play can get away with. Crane's voice (distinct, fresh, and delightfully deprecating) makes the jump, but the play itself doesn't totally work: it comes across exactly as what it is, a series of short stories that have been crammed together into an 80-minute play, more fractured confession (three actresses simultaneously play the lead, Josie) than solid narrative.

The pace works best when focussed around Crane's elegant fable, "Return from the Depot!", in which a daughter refuses to accept her mother's cancerous death and is vindicated when her mother returns, three years later, to chalk the whole thing up as a misunderstanding. It's a plucky piece, and the mother (Molly Regan) is a real firecracker of a broad, all curses and charm. The surrounding collection of stories, however, focus on Josie's inability to find a man who won't horribly mistreat her, and Coburn Goss (who plays all the men) doesn't have enough personality to keep these scenes fresh.

The play becomes a three-person monologue, the internal-made-external patter of the three Josies (Kate Arrington, Lauren Katz, and Amy Warren). There are a few segments where this works, such as in "Year at a Glance!", where the women glance back at their first year of grief and assess where they are: "I realize I am marking time in 'Days since.'/I join a support group./I quit the support group because it's depressing./I feel surprised it's depressing./I notice I am marking time in 'Months since.'" The quick banter here is necessary, and works to show the rapid and totally distinct shifts in a person's mind. But it's often more distracting than hilarious, something director Jessica Thebus must have noticed, as she has Kate Arrington grieve alone when her mother "disappears" again. There are some moments that can't be shared, and Arrington's performance, a flood of tears that dry up into an enabling laugh, is proof that the story isn't flawed, just strained by the presentation.

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