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“Nothing will truly be OK again,” said the young woman with a dead-eyed stare. “Everything is wrong.”
The lines are from George F. Walker’s Problem Child, currently receiving its area premiere at Round House, and I heard actress Megan Anderson utter them on Monday, Sept. 10. For some reasonperhaps because they so effectively captured the mind-set of a character who felt she was hanging on by her fingernails as her world crumbledI scribbled them down in the margin of my program.
Six days later, as I write this, I marvel at the other words I wrote next to them: “Seriously unbalanced.”
As a character evaluation, that’s clearly valid. Denise, the woman Anderson plays, is more than just distressedshe’s off the rails, a threat to herself and others because she’s angry, obsessive, and irrational. She is also, I should note, absolutely right about her situation. In part because of her own actions, in part because of circumstances beyond her control, everything is now wrong in her world, and nothing will truly be OK again. As she sits in a seedy motel room, having endured one series of catastrophes and waiting for the next, she’s right to feel shattered and at loose ends.
She’s right in a way that will almost certainly strike audiences differently today than it did for the opening-night crowd, some 12 hours before all of us were forcibly reminded of how fragile the constructs are that keep our own world from crumbling. Many theatrical eventsincluding, of course, the area’s two evenings of Greek tragedywill have lines that resonate freshly this week. But it’s intriguing how the whole of Walker’s comic exploration of alienation seems apt for this particular moment.
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In Problem Child, the Canadian playwright is depicting, as he frequently has, a suburban world in which raw, aggressive characters seek a leg up in a society that largely disenfranchises them. Walker’s protagonists are invariably as opinionated as they are ill-informedwhich makes them at once hilarious and nicely representative of the public at large. They also tend to be consumed by a driving passion. Denise’s is for her child, who was placed in foster care when authorities discovered that Denise was turning tricks to make ends meet while her husband, R.J. (Peter J. Mendez), was in jail on drug charges. Fiercely single-minded, she wants the kid back, and unlike R.J., who’s trying to clean up his act, she doesn’t seem to grasp that she must do more than just be available for that to happen. Helen (Jane Beard), the social worker charged with evaluating parental fitness, is not inclined to cut the couple any slack, so Denise gets herself a gun, and things quickly go from bad to disastrous.
What is depicted in this playa vulnerable party responding to a grievance with violence that begets more violenceis pretty straightforward. There’s a power structure, and it gets upended, providing moments of both comedy and suspense. Walker always tilts his arguments in favor of the powerless, but he doesn’t very often allow audiences any easy outs. If you’re inclined to side with Helen’s correctly bleak assessment of Denise’s parenting skills, you’re nonetheless confronted with the fact that the hard-as-nails social worker is so inflexible and sanctimonious that when events conspire to put her on the defensive, she seems as much victimizer as victim. On the other hand, you side with Denise at your peril. Sure, she’s aggrieved, and it’s always possible that when she gets her baby back she’ll straighten up and fly right, but could any responsible party really take that chance? There is, after all, the child to consider. So you’re left, much as in life, with an intractable problem, a pair of determined, deeply involved combatants, and smoldering anger on both sides.
To the playwright’s credit, he doesn’t resolve things neatly, and Daniel De Raey’s mostly uproarious, ultimately haunting staging revels in keeping both the characters and the audience off-balance, sometimes with downright hoary sight gags. Marty Lodge, for instance, earns his first laugh as the motel’s alcoholic maintenance guy with an entrance that doesn’t require him to move a muscle: Someone simply opens the motel room’s blinds to discover him pressed against the glass like a bug on a windshield (which, come to think of it, isn’t a bad metaphor for the way the character has been flattened by life).
The other performers contribute to the unsettling nature of the evening in less visual ways. Beard finds so much humanity in the platitudinous social worker that you quickly forgive her for being an amalgam of every officious do-gooder who ever tried to create pearls of wisdom by coating grains of truth with righteousness. The woman’s a prig, but she’s an oddly compelling one. Mendez makes R.J. a changeable, appealingly intriguing fellow, though the author has really given him only one quirk to work with: the character’s love-hate relationship with television talk shows. And Anderson, who’s making her area debut, brings such intensity to Denise’s relentless, unyielding concentration on getting her child back that the leading lady comes to seem an all-but-irresistible force. Maybe it’s just that I’ve seen a lot of Greek tragedy lately, but I couldn’t help thinking of her as a crazed, contemporary cousin to that quintessentially destructive mother, Medea.
Round House’s appropriately down-and-dirty production is sardonic and brutal, and has a design scheme that calls to mind not just the troupe’s production of Criminal Genius (another of Walker’s suburban motel plays) but also the violent milieu of such Sam Shepard works as Buried Child and True West. If Walker weren’t inclined to push the comedy in his disquieting situations further than Shepard does, he’d almost seem to be traversing similar territory. But Problem Child has its own vision of a hellish-seeming normalityone that’s been outfitted at Round House with a ferocity that suits the play and, unfortunately, the times. CP