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Fear of the Dark

We haven’t seen much

of playwright Melanie Marnich’s work in these parts, despite her being a darling of the Actors Theater of Louisville playwriting stable — which is sort of like getting the Pope’s blessing to do what you want in the American theater. Her 2001 play,

Quake

— a cartoon about a woman crossing the country and engaging in a sequence of relationships that anyone but she can see will end in disaster — premiered in Louisville. This earned Marnich the credentials to have her next play,

Blur

— which she’d been working on for some time — developed at the New York Public Theater, which nudged along its opening at the posh Manhattan Theater Club in 2002. Since then,

Blur

has been staged at regional theater strongholds, at places like the Denver Theater Center and the Dallas Theater Center. Finally, Meadows Basement has brought the play to Hollywood.



The press in those other cities cites Marnich as being among a new generation of women playwrights — along with Claudia Sheer and Rebecca Gilman — who are redefining what a woman’s play is. Don’t have a clue what that means. Maybe they’re talking about a woman writing strong female characters, or creating male characters without skewering them on a spit of hatred. But that’s hardly new among female dramatists, from Caryl Churchill to Wendy Wasserstein to Beth Henley. Actually, it defines the essence of what any dramatist is supposed to do. Gilman and Sheer and Marnich all look at women’s journeys through life — the idiosyncrasies, the losses, the betrayals and broken hearts, and the sense or senselessness of it all. If among them, a new school of women’s writing is emerging, that school should be named after Tennessee Williams. These are not women playwrights, they’re playwrights.



In both

Quake

and

Blur,

Marnich writes about blindness. In

Quake,

it manifests itself in the central character’s daffy obliviousness to each sinkhole she plunges herself into, whenever she falls for a fella.

Blur

takes the theme more literally.



After a series of short, episodic scenes, sweet kid Dot (Jenni Kirk) ends Scene 3 with the startling confession to her doting, overbearing mother (Juliana Bellinger): “I can’t see my feet, Mom. I can’t see your face.”



In a blink, Dot and Mom are at the office of the Eye Doctor (Jonathan Winn) who, in a tone of cautious candor, tells them that Dot has Leber’s Optic Atrophy, a genetic, degenerative malady that causes the sudden and usually irreversible loss of sight — a disease carried by mothers to their children. When Dot later asks Mom whether or not the disease was inherited from “that guy who was my father,” Mom demurs and misleads — if not lies — deflecting any genetic responsibility from herself. It’s a fib that will blow up in her face.



From here,

Blur

drifts into a world of misfits — Dot takes confession from a gentle, renegade priest (Brett Aune) who is en route to being defrocked; she forges a bond with a butch, scar-faced pal (Mary Elizabeth Ellis); she storms out on her mother and has a tender, romantic liaison with a “habitat hygienist” (Matt Saunders) at the local zoo. And all the while, her glasses get progressively thicker.



That central, blinding theme keeps slipping off the rest of the play like a Velcro patch from smooth linen. If

Blur

is trying to suggest that Dot’s disease causes the story’s other unfolding events, there’s no evidence of it in the play. Marnich strains to persuade us that a combination of Mom’s fib and Dot’s shrinking vision ignites a life-changing, soul-saving fury in an otherwise dutiful daughter. However, were Dot not wearing coke-bottle glasses, the saga of misfits would be equally plausible. Teenagers walk out on their mothers every day for no reason at all, priests routinely self-destruct, and zookeepers probably all question their life’s purpose at some point or another — sort of like everyone else.



In an overly romantic interpretation, the press materials suggest that the play is about Dot replacing sight with insight. That’s a very nice idea, but it’s not in the play.



What’s in the play has little to do with seeing and not seeing. With an appealing tenderness that drifts nicely into raucous humor, and not so nicely into sentimental goop,

Blur

simply follows the travails of people on the margins, feeling desperately insecure and lashing out when tensions become unbearable — and then, with luck, having the propensity to conjoin once more. Ira Steck gives the play a lovely production on Andy Mangin’s Mondrian-like set — the centerpiece being Kirk’s waiflike Dot, and her evolution from sugar puff to raging typhoon. Her courtship with Saunders’ club-footed zookeeper is as sweet as cotton candy at the movies.



Aune brings out the wry wit in Marnich’s floundering priest. Pixie-faced Ellis pulls off Dot’s caustic pal, Francis, with a nasal twang and dismissive, shrugging gestures that aim for sarcasm but actually reveal any snotty kid’s need for love. Winn’s Doctor gets the line between professional distance and compassion pitch perfect. Bellinger plays Mom with clenched jaws from the get-go, which renders her subsequent emotional collapse quite convincing, but not terribly surprising.



Blur

tells the story of people falling apart and then together somewhat. And, I suppose, their fear of the dark. But that really has little to do with going blind.





BLUR

| By MELANIE MARNICH | Presented by MEADOWS BASEMENT at THEATRE/THEATER, Fourth Floor, 6425 Hollywood Blvd. | Through April 10 | (323) 782-6218




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