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Sterling (William Petersen), a former lawyer turned recluse in the Costa Rican jungle is surprised by the arrival of the 17-year-old niece he barely knows, Becky (Rae Gray), a loquacious high-schooler apparently hot-footing it out of town for a week’s obscurity in the wilderness. Unaccustomed to being communicative, Sterling slowly acquires a sense of Becky’s travail, disconcertingly analogous to his own retreat from the hurly burly of the censorious opinions of others, and their individual remorse over each’s moral negligences.
This character study of some delicacy commits no sins of its own in its careful delineation of souls so wounded by the careless injuries they have perpetrated, however unintentionally, upon others. Regret and remorse, however justified, exact a destructive toll on each of them, as they gradually begin to discern — past their respective protective shells — a commonality that permits them tentatively to reach for some nascent compassion, if not forgiveness, for themselves. (Incidentally, it also explores a common relationship not so often considered in dramatic literature: that of the uncle to niece, which can be exceptionally interesting because it has so little in common with the role of the parent.)
This template of a theme tends to toe-dance about the borders of the precious, the rather calculated storyline often compensated by the writer’s tuning fork calibration of speech patterns that makes the contrivance of the ethical and psychological issues easygoing to partake. It is the sort of not quite poetic naturalism that is the heritage of Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre, where Slowgirl developed (it premiered at Lincoln Center). Not, however, to be confused with anything that could possibly be dubbed as “realism.” The premise shares a lot of parallels with The Night of the Iguana by Tennessee Williams, though with considerably less ambition, heft or complexity.
Playwright Greg Pierce, new to Los Angeles stages, has an impressive resume of collaborations with important theaters and talents, and on the evidence here he conforms expertly within confines of a fairly narrow view of what might be regarded as today’s standard of a Tradition of Quality — a little over-familiar, a tad academic in its beats and structure, well-made in the craftsman mode. Again, one thinks of antecedents, such as Horton Foote relocated to the tropics.
Director Randall Arney, also the artistic director at the Geffen, shares the Steppenwolf patrimony and knows his way around this kind of material, so everything is impeccably sure-footed, tastefully suggestive, and so polished the effort required is rarely noticeable. What feels lacking is urgency, originality and the sense of something too essential to ignore. To be implicated in the mistakes the characters make, maybe the audience needs to share the compulsion that these messy people are some inescapable expressions of ourselves.
Nevertheless, all creative elements are quite impeccable. The performers expertly establish their surfaces and reveal in layers their secret torments.
Petersen, for a dozen years Gil Grissom of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, has always been marked by his emotion-forward aggressive power, notably in earlier film work such as To Live and Die in L.A. and Manhunter (both directed by fellow Chicagoans). Here he is radically constrained by his introverted hermit character, listening and reacting eloquently with milder means. It’s a restorative assertion of range, particularly when one learns that his Broadway debut was as the bombastically tortured Reverend Shannon in a revival of Iguana.
For her part, current University of Chicago undergraduate Gray (Boardwalk Empire) already has the chops to make her more difficult role appear to be little else than her character onstage playing herself.
Venue: The Geffen Playhouse, Westwood (runs through April 27)
Cast: William Petersen, Rae Gray
Director: Randall Arney
Playwright: Greg Pierce
Set designer: Takeshi Kata
Lighting designer: Daniel Ionazzi
Music & sound designer: Richard Woodbury
A Steppenwolf Theatre Production
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