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Virginia, the troubled woman at the center of Arthur Laurents’ 1957 play A Clearing in the Woods, is approaching middle age the way a skidding car approaches an intersection. In the opening scene, wearing only a nightgown, she stumbles wide-eyed and out of breath into the open space promised by the play’s title. Is she high-tailing it out of some violent relationship? Has she slipped away from an asylum in the middle of the night? It’s tough to tell.
Fitfully, as she begins interacting with an aggressively chatty bunch of characters who emerge from the edges of the set, Virginia reveals herself as a person who’s been bouncing between rocks and hard places her whole life and has the emotional scars to prove it. “A choice should include something you want: a dream,” she laments at one point. Instead, it’s pretty clear she’s gotten used to picking from a less palatable menu: between a distant husband and a hurtful divorce, between a harried reality and an even more chaotic fantasy life. She’s a woman who proudly announces that she hosted a dinner party for 10 the week before—and did all the cooking herself—but then adds that she fled the meal, and her own apartment, halfway through.
A rarely produced script that’s getting a smart, tender revival this month from the Rorschach Theatre, A Clearing in the Woods first appeared on Broadway in January 1957, eight months before the premiere of West Side Story, for which Laurents wrote the book. Its run was short: just 36 performances, compared with West Side Story’s 732. If you were to read the two scripts back to back without knowing that Laurents wrote both, you’d probably never make the connection. Especially in its early scenes, Clearing is opaque and anti-naturalistic, its relationships hard to parse. For a while we might be in heaven, or hell, or a leafy part of New Jersey. The language is a little like that of a dark children’s story, a little like Sartre’s: a Grimm, grim brand of existentialism. It isn’t until Virginia mentions her “office,” about 15 minutes in, that we can make any connection to the modern world.
And it isn’t until Virginia’s father, Barney (John Brady), appears—like some kind of netherworld Ward Cleaver, carrying a golf club and worrying aloud about missing his tee time—that we begin to piece together Laurents’ setup: All the other characters are apparently nothing more than visions. Along with her father, her ex-husband, Pete (Jason Stiles), and her most recent boyfriend, Andy (Hugh T. Owen), Virginia is confronted by three younger versions of herself: the child Jiggee (Maggie Glauber), the rebellious teenager who calls herself Nora in honor of the Ibsen heroine (Angela Cerkevitch), and the married Ginna (Jessi Burgess). Then there’s George (Michael John Casey), a hunter and stand-in for the devil, who mixes Virginia an al fresco martini while delivering a seductive defense of nihilism.
In this setting, Virginia knocks around like a mentally unstable version of Duke Senior, exiled to an Arden that’s empty except for the crowd filling her mind. An exchange between Virginia and her father neatly sums up one source of her neurosis: “Pretty girls are happy girls,” he says, chiding her. “Happy girls are pretty girls,” she answers back. By the time she cries out to one of her ghosts, “I am not strong! And I am exhausted from trying to be!” we know it’s only a matter of time before she’ll be standing, despondent, in what Laurents memorably calls “the ugly light of the medicine chest.”
For Rorschach, so far, so good: In the first half of the play, Laurents maintains a delicate balance, solidly backed by no-nonsense direction from Jenny McConnell, between mystery and emotional revelation. The script, in fact, comes across at first as bracingly up-to-date and poetically slippery, as if Laurents had been studying his Beckett. Kathleen Geldard’s clever costume design mixes elements of the 1950s and the 21st century. And the company gets a boost from its temporary home: With its steeply pitched wooden ceiling crossed by a tangle of beams, all intelligently lighted by Marianne Meadows, the long, high room and empty stage surrounded by folding chairs really do suggest a forest clearing. Lindsay Allen masterfully controls the tempo as Virginia, though she relies on an underlying confidence perhaps too firm to suggest the depths of her character’s despair. And except for a couple of rough spots in the smaller roles, the rest of the acting is also strong.
Then, in the second half, the play falls apart—or, to be more accurate, it finds a disastrous sort of stability. What was mysterious becomes tedious, as Virginia gets the upper hand on her demons and starts making treacly speeches about hopes and dreams and reaching for the stars. Who knew Arthur Laurents would reveal himself as the ’50s version of Dr. Phil, or that he’d resort to a cliched trial sequence, with each version of Virginia calling a witness to testify about her worthiness as a human being? I certainly didn’t: I spent the intermission trying to predict how many pills Virginia was going to swallow before the end of the night, not how she was going to find the Will to Overcome.
It’s hard to say what McConnell could have done to handle the complete change of tone between the first and second acts. In the early going, her straightforward, sometimes earnest approach seems a smart way to go—even a necessity, to keep the audience from getting thoroughly, as opposed to pleasantly, confused. But after intermission, when the play turns into little more than a self-actualization seminar for Virginia, that strategy seems flatly inadequate. Of course, it has to be said that trying something more adventurous—spinning the play as an early warning sign of the Prozac culture or the Self-Help Nation to come—might make the first few minutes of the evening irredeemably foreign. It’s a bit of a paradox, to be sure, and one that McConnell and her young company, for all the successes and pleasures of this production, haven’t really attempted to solve. CP