Fear of the Dark
We havent seen much of playwright Melanie Marnichs work in these parts, despite her being a darling of the Actors Theater of Louisville playwriting stable which is sort of like getting the Popes 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 shed 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 womans play is. Dont have a clue what that means. Maybe theyre talking about a woman writing strong female characters, or creating male characters without skewering them on a spit of hatred. But thats 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 womens 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 womens writing is emerging, that school should be named after Tennessee Williams. These are not women playwrights, theyre playwrights.
In both Quake and Blur, Marnich writes about blindness. In Quake, it manifests itself in the central characters 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 cant see my feet, Mom. I cant 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 Lebers 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. Its 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 Dots disease causes the storys other unfolding events, theres no evidence of it in the play. Marnich strains to persuade us that a combination of Moms fib and Dots 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 lifes 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. Thats a very nice idea, but its not in the play.
Whats 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 Mangins Mondrian-like set the centerpiece being Kirks 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 Marnichs floundering priest. Pixie-faced Ellis pulls off Dots caustic pal, Francis, with a nasal twang and dismissive, shrugging gestures that aim for sarcasm but actually reveal any snotty kids need for love. Winns 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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