Monday, April 28, 2008


As Laney reads her short story aloud, towering and hunching over her mother, she takes particular relish in her final line: "Instead of serving up lemonade, he served up bullets, straight between the eyes." What teenage daughter wouldn't want to shock their parent, especially one who blames her mother for leaving her father and moving her from comfortable Wisconsin to cruel Mississippi. (Never mind that her dad came into her room with a knife, thinking he was Abraham and she Isaac.) "Did you feel your arm hairs rise like you'd just been electrocuted?" she asks, halfway between a squeal and a gasp. "Well," her mother responds, ever the list-making pragmatist, "the ending comes out of nowhere . . . . maybe you should make it a little more realistic?" Ugh, mo-om!

The stories may be darkly fantastical (like short snippets of The Pillowman), and the teen angst may flood the set (much like From Up Here), but Catherine Treischmann never lets the clash between imagination and realism get the best of her. As a result, crooked's plot bends and twists just enough to let the characters go straight for the heart. It's this honesty that allows Laney to not only befriend Maribel -- a fellow outcast, shunned for her remedial status, obesity, and evangelicalism -- but to possibly love her. It's that naked need for acceptance that lets crooked make hell a necessity: "There has to be a punishment for people who sin and sin and keep sinning. If there isn't everlasting hell, then Hitler and Stalin and Deedee Cummings will never get punished for what they did."

It's that thought, taken one step further, that obliges us to take this blind faith seriously. In the best scene of the play, Laney genuinely opens herself up to god, aching to believe in someone who can heal her heart, or at least her hunched back. Nothing happens, but while Laney retreats into bitterness, Maribel gives Treischmann an entry point to follow real faith: "I ask that you forgive me," she says, tearfully praying for her friend, "for not being a better witness to Laney, because if I had been a better witness, I know that she would have felt you, because I know you know never say no to anybody, and if Laney thought you said no, it must be because I did something wrong." And just like that, in the sublime calm that characterizes many of the modern plays tackling religion (think 100 Saints You Should Know), the two girls share a moment of rare beauty. The playwright describes it as electric: it is.

Although crooked is billed as a comedy, Liz Diamond does the play a real service by holding the play up to this level of performance, refusing to let this important clash of world views descend into cheap comedy. Carmen M. Herlihy's Maribel is absolutely heartbreaking, a fragile, isolated girl whose belief in invisible stigmata is just a step away from self-cutting. Herlihy fills the role out, refusing to be "stupid," "religious," or any other dismissively one-dimensional adjective. Instead, she's the most sympathetic of the characters (though no-one in the play is cruel: another reason why crooked is so tearfully powerful).

The play ends in the middle of the climax, with Elise (Betsy Aidem) expressing her love for Laney (Cristin Milioti) in religious terms ("I have a love for you that surpasses all understanding"), and Maribel confronting her religion with physical action. It's a broad moment, yet sharply specific too, though it's no surprise that a play with a name like crooked refuses to be bound to the straight and narrow.

No comments: