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A flustered woman named Max (Kathleen Coons) is dressing hurriedly in the dark. She’s just surprised herself by sleeping with a woman for the first time, and she’s eager to leave before said woman (Jennifer Mendenhall’s Lane) wakes up. “I couldn’t go getting bisexual on myself,” she whispers to us, by way of explanation, “I’m not that organized.”
Our obsessive fear of labels, our need to keep from getting ourselves pinned to any particular specimen board, is playwright Daniel MacIvor’s subject. In that meta-sense, A Beautiful View plays like a companion piece to his In On It, mounted last year by Theatre Alliance. But where In On It’s play-within-a-play structure gave its gay male couple leave to continually reshape their story (“Do you think that’s a good way to start?”), A Beautiful View doesn’t permit Max and Lane the luxury of revision. There’s gotta be a Women’s Studies thesis in that.
The two women, for mysterious reasons that become gradually less so as we near the end, recount to us the story of their relationship: how they met at a camping supply store, how they each pitched woo without ever truly admitting to themselves it was woo that they were pitching, and how they ended up. They take turns on the storytelling, and whichever woman finds herself nudged out of the spotlight at any given moment can only comment on how the tale is getting told. But MacIvor has chosen those comments with care, and these game actors ensure that they do the work he wants them to. “I just think it’s interesting that you chose to stop there,” Max says to Lane at one key point, and Coons marinates that “interesting” in a rich and complex bath of emotion. For her part, Mendenhall can invest a simple grunt of dissent with years of unspoken aggravation.
A Beautiful View is black-box, stripped-down, experimental theater—only two chairs and a tent share the stage with Mendenhall and Coons—where abstract meditations on sexual identity can all too easily acquire a patina of self-importance and self-righteousness. So MacIvor and his actors approach the material with a light, comic touch and devote themselves to delineating these two women clearly.
It’s Mendenhall’s Lane who quite literally pulls back the curtain on the onstage events, and she does so with a wry, intelligent, close-lipped smile that will rarely leave her face throughout the evening. It’s a puzzling, frustrating thing, that smile—you keep waiting for Mendenhall to become more expressive, more available, but she resolutely thwarts such expectations. It’s about then you notice what Coons is doing with Max—investing her with a pinched, searching, uncomfortable-in-her-skin quality that practically ensures she will: A) find the cool, reserved Lane endlessly intriguing; and B) find it nearly impossible to communicate with her.
MacIvor’s dialogue is spare, elegant and loaded with meaning, and he takes particular delight in showing us how words can cloud meaning while ostensibly clarifying it. Max and Lane finish each other’s sentences—but incorrectly. When it comes to religion and the great beyond, they agree that “Nothing is enough” but interpret that to mean vastly different things.
The characters’ reluctance to put a name to their relationship is mirrored in MacIvor’s austere staging, which is marked by long silences that make the play’s 75-minute running time seem longer. We’re told events of the play take place over the course of 20 years, but we don’t really feel it—which somewhat mutes the production’s ultimate impact. The sound and lighting design, by Michael Laird and John Burkland respectively, doesn’t offer the help it could in placing the characters in time, but it is effective in capturing mood and, in one instance, depicting a sudden turn of events with admirable, efficient restraint. It’s left to Brandee Mathies’ matter-of-fact costuming to mark the passing of years, and it sort of succeeds, but in the end there’s only so much narrative work one can coax out of polar fleece.