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Thursday, April 6, 2017

"Evidence of Things Unseen" at Taproot Theatre Poignantly Mirrors Real Life — A Review

 No matter who you are, the play Evidence of Things Unseen, at Seattle's Taproot Theatre now through April 29, will feel personal to you. Life is complicated, for all of us. This finely crafted drama by Seattle native Katie Forgette takes the raw clay of that simple truth and sculpts a story filled with the pain of grief and the release of humor, tension and tenderness, the desire for revenge and the need to let go. Forgette's complex characters will remind you of friends, family members, or even yourself. Their conversations sound natural and believable, spiced with wittiness. Above all, this beautifully acted play is a story of finding grace.

Michael Winters, Christine Marie Brown and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Two very different sisters each love their elderly father and want to help him deal with a tragedy even as they struggle to do so themselves. Jane (Jenny Vaughn Hall, who impressed me before in Best of Enemies) turns to her Christian beliefs while her sister Abigail (Christine Marie Brown) has little patience with all of that. Their opposing views create seemingly irreconcilable conflicts. In spite of their obvious love for each other, jealousies and insecurities surface. Choosing action over passivity, Abigail seeks justice above all, but will find that it is not a simple or satisfying matter. Their most lovable father, Jack (Michael Winters), a former academic, is living in a care facility, where bird watching remains his only joy. Their three-partner dance involves fluid shifts of protectiveness, parent/child dynamics, and personal power. They perform this dance to the music of genuine love and concern for each other, even while not always quite in step.

The fourth character, Daniel (Chip Wood), seems to be the axis of guilt and regret, from which fateful consequences swirl outward to envelope other lives. Yet he has his own story too. The script raises seriously questions about responsibility and accountability when personal pain leads to choices that affect others.

Then there are the ghosts who also dwell on the edges of this expanding universe, beyond reach, but forever a part of it. We all have those. 

Christine Marie Brown, Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Another kind of loss examined, if lightly, in this play is the very real loss of personal power over one's bodily capabilities, range of choices, and living circumstances, as aging occurs. Jack's sense of losing his significance to society feels painfully real, thinking of our own parents and what lies ahead for each of us. What he must face reminds me of a sad observation. No matter how well life is lived, or how many decades people have faithfully "paid their dues," they never seem to reach the point where the work is done and they can simply, happily, coast along. Even to the very end, most of us will continue to be called upon to face and adjust to loss and change.

We all have families. We all experience loss. We all struggle, at times, to understand why things happen the way they do. And that goes for even the most religiously devout among us. At one point, the frustrated Jane looks heavenward and says, "You can step in any time now!" Is there really a grand plan behind the way lives intersect as they do, or do events happen randomly? Can we love and  work together for a greater good, even we disagree? These questions and more, make the play relatable to every person in the audience.

Beautifully spare in terms of props, actors, and explanations, the play manages in only about 80 minutes, and with a storyline covering only a few days, to give us the sense of decades of marriage, misunderstandings, mistakes, and personal journeys of growth.  Scott Nolte's excellent direction draws the best from these fine actors and a powerful script that also includes many very funny lines. I have seen so much great acting at Taproot, and this is some of the best. 

Michael Winters and Jenny Vaughn Hall in Evidence of Things Unseen at Taproot Theatre. Photo by Erik Stuhaug.

Through the use of sound effects—singing birds and flowing water—we immerse ourselves in the peacefulness of nature. In contrast to these imagined bucolic scenes, however, is the background to this stage set, which, frankly, detracted. I have always loved the sets at Taproot, and expect to again, but not this one. I would describe it as a tangled, thorny-looking, and slightly disturbing frame at the back of the stage that seemed incongruent with the story, although dramaturg Sonja Lowe would disagree. In an article in the program titled Fragmented Wholeness, she explains how the abstract structures Brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira creates from found scraps of wood, refuse of the streets, inspired scenic designer Amanda Sweger. Meant to represent "brokenness and wholeness," its symbolism was apparently too subtle for my mind. Instead, it merely distracted from a beautiful, although painful, story. At times, I felt the same way about the music, although the sound design in general was well done.

Those were the only two slight negatives in this most worthwhile and moving production. As usual, Sarah Burch Gordon's costume design is pure perfection. The way she dressed these characters said as much about their personalities and tastes as any lines spoken.

This intense and beautifully acted play brings memories of our own moments of family drama, sibling tensions, and questions that remain unanswered. The tenderness I felt toward the father, Jack, clearly came from my own experiences at the end of my own father's life. In the case of this particular family in Evidence of Things Unseen, the things unseen, the "truths," can only be viewed from a distance, by stepping back far enough from ourselves and our own perceptions to see the greater whole, the biggest of the big pictures. The evidence that meaning does exist must be, simply, the existence of love. Reconnect with yours at Taproot. I highly recommend this play.

For tickets, see  or call (206) 781-9708. 

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