Tuesday, February 21, 2012

THEATRE REVIEW: "In the Wake" at San Diego REPertory Theatre

"Wake" Up, America!

Lisa Kron’s smart and stimulating Bush-era play is less about politics and more about our own myopic-mindedness

By Donnie Matsuda

It is hard to see things we cannot see.

But that’s the thing about blind spots, as Ellen, the energetic, obsessive-compulsive political activist at the center of Lisa Kron’s provocative play, In the Wake, reminds us. By their very definition, they are things we cannot see – other people can see our blind spots and we can see the blind spots in others – but sadly, we remain oblivious to those crucial details that lie just outside the bounds of our myopic minds. Perhaps the genius of Kron’s play is that with its blend of provocative dialogue and heady characters, it gets us thinking individually and collectively about those blind spots that exist in our own American lives – spots that keep us from fully seeing ourselves and realizing our full potential.

Aubrey Saverino as Ellen in San Diego REP's "In the Wake." Photo by Daren Scott.

Instead of instructing us or regaling us with some specific kind of polemic, Kron provides us with a case study of sorts in the central character of Ellen. A well-educated, exuberant, and opinionated freelance writer, Ellen has no doubts about anything in her life and remains steadfast in her staunchly liberal beliefs, as she passionately speaks out against the Supreme Court, the war in Iraq and the atrocities perpetuated by the administration of George W. Bush. She convinces herself that she is blessed with the perfect life: a boyfriend (they are not married) named Danny who dotes on her in his own aloof way, Danny’s sister Kayla and her wife (they are married) Laurie who live in the same apartment building and run in similar social (though not political) circles, and her good friend Judy, who along with mixed race niece, Tessa provide some stark wake up calls about the real America we live in.

As we follow Ellen’s life amid the political backdrop of 2000-2005 (presented throughout the play in video vignettes by projection designer Victoria Petrovich), including Bush’s 2001 inauguration, the fateful events of 9/11, declaration of the war in Iraq, Bush’s re-election, and the destruction that was Hurricane Katrina, we begin to sense the devastating effects of her own blind spot as her emotional affair with another woman and her unbending political tirades drive all her close friends farther and farther away. And in the grander scheme of things, Ellen becomes somewhat of a metaphor for an America that keeps pushing blindly forward without any sense of awareness of the destruction that lies in its wake. Yes, those blind spots can be tricky, but they are oh so important.

Fran Gercke as Danny. Photo by Daren Scott.

In the Wake had its world premiere in Los Angeles in March 2010 and went on to be staged at the Berkeley REP before opening Off-Broadway in the Fall of 2010. Now being presented in its regional premiere by the San Diego REPertory Theatre in a deeply affecting and simply sublime staging, In the Wake is one of the most remarkable and important modern American plays you will ever see. Admittedly, it is not perfect: there are a few too many winding diatribes by our talkative leading lady, there are too many scenes that try too hard and push the play’s long-ish two hour and 30 minute run time, and there isn’t a whole lot of genuine soul-searching at the end of the day. But, as a character driven piece, the writing is sharp and smart, the themes are utterly relevant, and the play serves up some food for thought in ways that are both fresh and delectable.

Stephanie Dunnam as Judy and Aubrey Saverino as Ellen. Photo by Daren Scott.

And San Diego REP boasts an all-star cast of some of the best actors in the region. San Diego-trained and New York-based actress Aubrey Saverino is simply stellar in the difficult role of Ellen. With a breezy exuberance and an unrelenting stamina, she fits so comfortably in the skin of a woman who is guileless in her staunch political and personal stances, yet she also credibly swings up to the character’s manically obsessive highs and down to the character’s deeply depressive lows. Local favorite Francis Gercke plays the lackadaisical Danny to perfection. His role is a tricky one, as there’s not a whole lot of substance written into the script for him, but Gercke nonetheless mines his one-liners for all they are worth and manages to come across as a likeable, if not truly loveable, character. Jo Anne Glover as lipstick lesbian Kayla and DeAnna Driscoll as her butch wife Laurie are outstanding in their finely tuned roles, as is Stephanie Dunnam as Judy, who gives a tour-de-force performance as she seamlessly transforms from devilishly deadpan observer to full-fledged, strongly-opinionated realist. Sixteen-year old Alexis Louise Young delivers a genuine, heartfelt performance as Judy’s Republican-leaning, not-so-gay-friendly niece Tessa. And last but certainly not least is the incomparable Karson St. John who wows with her earthy and deeply moving turn as Amy, Ellen’s secret lesbian lover.

Karson St. John as Amy and Aubrey Saverino as Ellen. Photo by Daren Scott.

And at the helm of it all is deft director Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. Sonnenberg is the master of extracting riveting and real performances from her actors and she paints her plays with bold, broad strokes before honing in on the delicate details of each of her well refined characters. The result is always stunning to witness and her fresh, vibrant vision here is what takes this production to another level. She is aided in bringing this edgy play to life by set designer Victoria Petrovich (whose sleek and sophisticated East Village Apartment set with its many rotating parts is pure genius) and costume designer Kate Stallons (whose contemporary creations are right on the mark).

Overall, In the Wake is more than just a liberal-leaning, feminist-themed story about one woman’s search for her blind spot. It is a thought-provoking piece of theatre that urges all of us to take a closer look at our lives and see what legacy we leave behind in our own individual wakes.

When we can finally see, we all might be a bit surprised at what we find.

Things to know before you go: In the Wake plays at San Diego REP’s Lyceum Space through March 4, 2012. Running time is 2 hours and 30 minutes with a 15 minute intermission. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm, and Sundays at 2pm. Performances are also scheduled on selected Saturdays at 2pm and selected Sundays, Tuesdays, and Wednesdays at 7pm. Ticket prices are $32-$51 with discounts available for groups, seniors, and military. For more information or to purchase tickets, call (619) 544-1000 or visit www.sdrep.org.

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