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Monday, April 21, 2014

A REVIEW OF "BETHANY" AT ACT—TALENT, SKILL, AND VISUAL IMPACT CAN'T LIFT UP THIS DOWNER

       

Emily Chisholm as Crystal at the smeared door
Photo: Chris Bennion 
       Maybe it’s fitting that the play “Bethany,” running at ACT—A Contemporary Theatre in Seattle through May 4, is named for a character never seen, because it also teases with conclusions never reached, a story line never believable, and final moments never clearly understood. In spite of these things, this play tries hard. It does deliver on ACT's high standards in terms of the outstanding cast, artful directing, dramatic lighting and sound. If you want to watch fine actors skillfully express their angst and build tension within in the framework of a sparse but perfect set design, go see "Bethany." Just go expecting a script that jerks you around and leaves you craving some kind of lesson, sense of justice, resolution, or hope, instead of a continuous drag downward. 
       Playwright Laura Marks restates the obvious—the economic meltdown that began in 2008 severely impacted lives. Any new insights or realistic dramatic interpretations of that time remain as elusive as the child, Bethany, who has been removed from the custody of her struggling mother, Crystal, a member of the sales force at a soon-to-be-closed Saturn car dealership. Everything hinges on Crystal's desperate last attempts to sell a car to an equally desperate, equally phony, middle-aged, unemployed, motivational speaker named Charlie—perfectly played by Richard Ziman. The choices she makes along that path lead to her downfall. Before I got to know her, I went expecting to like Crystal, to sympathize, and I hoped I would see her prevail in the face of terrible odds, but like the play itself—and in spite of the impressive acting of talented Emily Chisholm in the leading role—this protagonist disappoints. 

Darragh Kennan, Emily Chisholm, and Richard Ziman in back
Photo: Chris Bennion 
 
Director John Langs, states in the program, “Like all good theatre, this story asks more questions than it answers.” I don't believe that aspect serves to make this "good theatre." I’ve seen so much truly good theatre at ACT, and even plays that didn’t precisely answer the questions they raised at least left me with a new perspective from which to seek my own answers. They have offered a rich vicarious experience, a thought provoking take on an old idea, a deeper understanding, or a heightened sense of wonderment. It was disappointing that “Bethany” did none of those things for me. 
I guess my own personal opinions predisposed me to have this response. I could not help but think of my own parents and grandparents who weathered a far worse catastrophe, the Great Depression, without moral compromise. In my opinion, the character “Gary” (Darragh Kennan), a homeless man who is already a squatter in the foreclosed house Crystal ends up occupying, probably has more integrity than anyone else, as crazy and unpredictable as he appears to be. He knows exactly where he stands, is guileless, maintains a survivalist’s brand of hope, and displays genuine concern for his “roommate” Crystal and her absent child, even to the point of protectiveness. As for sanity, that is often a matter of perspective.
In contrast to Gary, some other characters react to the recession's impact on their lives by choosing to deceive, exploit, and manipulate. I realize that even the best person can slip into desperation, but I found myself still questioning Crystal’s judgement and behaviors. I felt that I was expected to be sympathetic toward her, but I began liking her less and less. People make good choices and bad choices, but hopefully they make moral choices. There is really no excuse for immoral or stupid ones, no matter how times challenge us. 

Board to the Belly - Emily Chisholm and Darragh Kennan
Photo: Chris Bennion 
Even fiction requires plausibility. This story has its basis in fact, yet seems unreal. Unless caught in the middle of warfare or a natural disastera situation in which any kind of shelter would be better than nonea single young woman, who is responsible for a child, would not be likely to spend even one night in an abandoned house occupied by a male transient. The circumstances under which she lost custody of her child seem doubtful too, as did many other aspects, including the superficial inspection by the social worker, Toni (Cynthia Jones). Also the humor in the beginning felt incongruous with the story’s serious subject and horrible, grim ending, as did Crystal’s profanity and conniving moves compared with her girl-next-door charm. This play feels confused.
In his letter in the program, Director Langs continued with, “I hope the questions raised and the feelings evoked will rattle around in you long after you leave the theatre.” The questions raised—such as whether or not misfortune inevitably corrupts morality—are questions we must answer for ourselves through our own experiences and perceptions of human nature. We certainly get no help from this script. That's okay, but the feelings evoked, still rattling around in me as Langs wished, seem like nothing more than annoying rattles in an old car. They don’t enlighten or enrich my life; they simply indicate that something needs to be fixed.



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