Sovereign Body: Theater Review

John Lorenz
"Sovereign Body"
Illness-as-metaphor examined with a horror-movie disease, its harrowing descent into living hell is undermined by a lesser denouement.

A debilitating disease takes control of a mother, to the horror of her family, in this North Hollywood staging.

Susan Sontag, in perhaps her most consequential work, argued with terminal persuasiveness that our drive to characterize illness as a symptom of moral culpability disables our ability to grapple with its reality, which is incontrovertibly oblivious to whether or not we comprehend it. Emilie Beck in her world premiere play, Sovereign Body, manages with some success both to invoke our need to confront fears of debilitation with symbolic fancies and to drive home the inexorable facts of mortality.

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Middle-aged Anna (Taylor Gilbert, founder and co-artistic director of The Road Theatre, where the play is performed), a professional chef and restaurateur, is preparing Thanksgiving dinner with her family. She is brusquely correcting everyone else’s technique and performance when the uninvited guest (Jack Millard, billed solely as “The Man”) appears, apprehended only by her. Anna commences to dropping utensils, and otherwise having her grasp compromised. Dripping with an unctuous superiority worthy of Kevin Spacey, this embodiment of possessive disease sadistically sends pain at will, overwhelming her sense of self as he commands progressive neurologic disorder into her physical being. Mother, husband and daughters stand by at first uncomprehendingly, gradually accepting the fact of her decline but limited in their capacity to support her, as her relationship with The Man takes over her entire existence.

This is played as terrifying stuff, and Millard makes a bone-chilling antagonist, however arbitrary he may be as a metaphor. Gilbert, for her part, anatomizes how her confident command pulverizes under the strain of a rebellious body, in a highly demonstrative performance that strikes maximum dread for our own sense of vulnerability.

Anna’s other relationships, with her mother (Bryna Weiss), her sculptor husband (Kevin McCorkle), two daughters (Dani Stephens and Hannah Mae Sturges) and her brother (John Cragen) and his conservative Christian wife (Anna Carini) are deftly sketched and capably portrayed, but cumulatively they don’t contribute much depth to the development of Beck’s theme. Her strongest gambit remains the anthropomorphized conflict between Anna and her demon, and the graphically suggested ravages, both behavioral and psychological, of her arbitrary and capricious malady.

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Beck has long served as Literary Manager for The Theatre @ Boston Court, while directing a number of first-rate productions of other writers. The whole point of dramaturgy is that the audience never apprehends anything you have done, but Beck has been midwifing so many substantial works by extraordinary playwrights, she must have had a great deal to do with the successful delivery.

Sovereign Body displays considerable dramatic skill and real talent for providing playable characters, opportunities seized with sensitivity by director Scott Alan Smith and all the actors. But the climax, involving a questionable invocation of sheer will and an ethically queasy projection, signally fails to realize the promising development of her themes in more than an arbitrary way. It may be resolutely cathartic, yet fatally compromised by its authorial determinism.

Until then, the play had succeeded in scaring the bejeezus out of me, with the kind of horror all too easy to imagine because it is inevitably, eventually, all too real. 

Venue: The Road Theatre on Lankershim, North Hollywood (runs through May 24)
Cast: Taylor Gilbert, Jack Millard, Kevin McCorkle, Dani Stephens, Bryna Weiss, Hanna Mae Sturges, Anna Carini, John Cragen
Director: Scott Alan Smith
Playwright: Emilie Beck
Set designer: Stephen Gifford
Lighting designer: Derrick McDaniel
Costume designer: Jocelyn Hublau
Sound designer: David B. Marling
Music: Drew Price
Producer: Kevin Shipp
Executive Producers: Taylor Gilbert & Sam Anderson