Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Secret Agenda of Trees

Photo/Ian Carmody

Colin McKenna's The Secret Agenda of Trees starts with an image of desolate realism, nicely accented by Ben Kato's beaten-down living room set. He then conjures a desperate charm, as the roguish Jack (Michael Tisdale) spars with a steely single-mother, Maggie (Lillian Wright): "Move on," she says, "I ain't what you're looking for." "If I see something better, I will," he replies. "But I doubt I will." Even Maggie's precocious teenage daughter, Veronica (Reyna de Courcy) fails to deter him, so she lowers her guard, giving way to that deep-rooted need for a connection, the poetry at the heart of McKenna's tenderly tragic writing, the stuff that asks "Why do trees claw so desperately at the sky?" and replies "Because they have nowhere else to go."

This portion of McKenna's work aches with truth, and scenes like these are the finest part of the play. Of course, the hint of sorrow is in the air--and posted on the wall, where pictures of Maggie's soldier of a son, Dixon (Brian Reilly) hang in a sort of unspoken limbo. The scent grows stronger when Maggie reveals her secret to Jack--she's a meth addict--and he, working knee-deep in the blood of a slaughterhouse's kill floor, is only too happy to join. Saddest of all is Veronica, so isolated that she has created a glamorous alter ego for herself--Lulu of the Pink Wings--and dreams of the dangerous soon-to-be gangbanger, Carlos (Christian Navarro): "I want to lick the tattoos right off your dark arms." All three get their wishes, but those wishes come with reality checks, especially for Maggie, who is terrified that her daughter will follow in her footsteps.

So far as realism goes, Michael Kimmel's direction nails it. It's one thing for de Courcy's Veronica to show her own steel when she demands cigarettes from Jack; it's another for Tisdale's Jack to reveal so much about his own character by so casually sharing. By maximizing the squalor--right down to references to "Lucky Charms breath"--he strikes the right balance for the giddying moments of escapism when Maggie and Jack light up and let loose. Likewise, by emphasizing Veronica's childishness, he's able to capture the sadness of a daughter being forced to care for her mother--a remarkable feat considering that McKenna's "dramatic" dialogue is so banal: "I don't know who you are!" "I'm your mother." "No you ain't."

However, the rest of the play falters, both in acting and writing. Veronica's dreams of her brother, Dixon, are forced attempts at conflict, and McKenna's justification for them--adding additional fantasy monologues--is unnecessary. Thankfully, de Courcy acts the hell out of them, using the opportunity to sell her character's age rather than the specific text. Navarro, however, has no such luck: every "yo" seems forced, and the whole punk attitude is as ill-fitting as his baggy jeans. Carlos is already underwritten as a character--just fuel for the fire; as played here, he all but disappears. On the other hand, Reilly, who is playing a ghost, goes way over the top--too present for his absence to really be felt. He'd do well to take a few cues from Wright and Tisdale, two fine actors who distill all of that extra energy into the flutter of a hopeful eye or the relief of sitting in a comfortable chair.

Thankfully, The Secret Agenda of Trees doesn't really branch far beyond its central three characters. Moreover, by putting down such deep roots for those three, it makes that clawing at the sky all the more heartbreaking. And that's worth putting on the agenda.

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