Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Acting up a (financial) storm in "Bethany"

Emily Chisholm in Bethany (photo Chris Bennion)
by Laura Marks
ACT Theatre
through May 4

The new play, Bethany, at ACT Theatre moves so quickly and with such power that by the end, you may well feel a bit punched in the gut. Playwright Laura Marks likely does not expect you to like the characters in this play, but you can identify with them.

Director John Langs takes a spare script and amplifies moments with quiet scene play that illuminates the inner life of these characters, caught in 2009 in the devastation of the Great Recession. The play might be realistic and it might not. It teeters on the edge of the fantastical or allegorical with a (typically beautifully wrought) modern kitchen set design by Carey Wong, sometimes-haunting lighting by Andrew Smith and kickass sound design by Brendan Patrick Hogan.

(Side note: BPH's sound designs are things of beauty. It's not that the sound design is so well done that it does not fit the production, but that they fit the production so aptly and amplify it so deliciously that I just have to bust out and say so every once in a while!)

The fantastical/allegorical elements start at the very beginning of the play when we meet Crystal (Emily Chisholm) breaking into an abandoned home, looking nothing like a woman who we think would do such a thing, in a well-fitting suit. She thinks she is alone until Gary (Darragh Keenan) appears, a much-more easily identifiably homeless individual who has squatters' rights, but decides the house is big enough to share.

This is one of those moments in the play you just have to accept (one of two crucial moments that beg you to just go with it or the play won't exist). Crystal makes an unlikely alliance with Gary as we discover that she is going to fake-live there to impress a social worker who has to sign off on giving back her daughter, Bethany.

I totally can grok that Crystal is on the skids after being turned out of one or several Ford dealerships. We forget that many car dealerships had to close and our entire auto industry was under siege until Obama saved Detroit. Crystal was discovered living with her daughter in a car, and Bethany was removed (credibly), though California would have been over-run with foster kids if they removed every child in that situation.

Crystal had been able to find work at a Saturn dealership selling cars, but again, I can believe that she's had terrible trouble making commission in that drastically down market. And the dealership is also about to close.

So, along comes Charlie (Richard Ziman), one of those "I have a seminar that will help you believe in yourself so thoroughly that you will finally achieve the life of your dreams" schemers. His prosperous look makes Bethany think she'll be able to sell one last car and have the commission help her get her daughter back.

Here is the other, most crucial, hurdle: Crystal is posited as a really great, knowledgeable car seller. These people are steeped in sales techniques and well aware of the pitfall of believing in a sale until the ink is on the paper. Yet, she can't penetrate Charlie's own selling persona - he's selling himself as prosperous - and is supposed to be so desperate for that last sale that she falls for all his flatteries.

If you don't buy this premise, the rest of the play can't move forward. So, you strap yourself in for the rest of the trip, which becomes a tense unfolding of next steps and confrontations in interesting directions.

The cast is really terrific, and as usual, ACT has produced a hell of a show. Ms. Chisholm really can do no wrong in my book and is as intense and committed an actor as you will ever meet. Her sheer charisma will make you believe in and even like Crystal.

Keenan and Ziman create interesting characters, well shaded and clear, and the ensemble players, Cynthia Jones as the social worker, Jonelle Jordan as the Saturn manager, and Suzanne Bouchard in a riveting turn as Charlie's wife, are great in their roles.

I still enjoyed the hell out of the production, even as I strained at some points to go with Marks' flow. It's new, it's a different topic (I haven't seen any play tackle the hurts and devastations of the recent economic stomping) and it's short (90ish minutes). As noted, it's beautifully technically supported. And there are surprises. I really like a play to surprise me. So, I recommend it.

Tickets here.