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If Americans are a self-involved people, and if baby boomers are the most self-involved among us, what of the boomer writer? What orgies of introspection, of endless self-examination and obsessive self-improvement, are too intricate to expect?
Trudy Blue, which opened Sunday at Studio Theatre, at least hints at an answer. The action lasts a single moment, no longer than it takes for a woman to negotiate a late-evening conversation with her husband, but the play’s scope spans hours, days even, and the running time is something like 90 minutes. That’s how long it takes for Ginger, the 40-something novelist heroine of Marsha Norman’s intricate and lovely play, to free herself from the tangle of thoughts and emotions that binds her as firmly as any set of fetters. That’s how long it takes her to stop asking how best to manage the moment and to get on with living it.
Ginger has a tendency to overthink things, you see. “What if…” she’ll ask instead of daring to find out, “Why can’t it be…” instead of moving to make it so. She lives inside her head as thoroughly as she inhabits the comfortable Manhattan world of a successful author, and the tragedy that puts dramatic flesh on Trudy Blue’s brittle comic bones isn’t the cancer diagnosis that, depending on how the doctors read the X-rays, may or may not leave Ginger with a couple of months to live: It’s that she spends so much time imagining how her life could be improved that she can’t see how good she’s got it.
Connecting with a taciturn husband and a teenage daughter is tough enough when you’re not trapped in a running dialogue with your alter egoand Ginger has an especially high-maintenance imaginary friend in Trudy Blue, the quirky, carefree heroine of her novels. Trudy, who’s constantly on call to kibitz as the action progresses, is Ginger as she imagines herself to beor at least she’s the voice of Ginger’s self-doubt, the constant nag who asks whether life is good enough. Norman’s snappy writing and superb structure don’t make it clear that Trudy is the problem until well past halfway through, however, and Katie Barrett’s performance has so much charm and vigor that audiences will spend most of the evening hoping that Ginger will in fact throw her worries to the wind, as Trudy urges, and hop a plane to Peru.
Watching Jane Beard conclude that such an escape would be the cheap way out is one of the great joys of J.R. Sullivan’s production; director and actress together create a marvelously transparent performance, clearly outlining Ginger’s frantically shifting moods without ever coloring too heavily between the lines. The character is simply, beautifully drawn, honestly felt, and, in the end, devastatingly real.
Andrew May, who plays both Ginger’s husband and the leather-jacketed fantasy man she conjures as a possibly preferable alternative, delivers two discrete performances differentiated by a mere degree or two of openness and warmth; it’s quite an accomplishment that each character is appealing in his own way. Studio’s staging offers other riches, as well: James Kronzer’s typically elegant set, note-perfect costumes (by Devon Painter) that range from superbly chic suits to fabulously free-spirited boots, and a lighting scheme (credit Michael Lincoln) that provides effective but never intrusive punctuation for the constant shifts between Ginger’s interior and exterior lives.
Kelsey Keel, Denise Diggs, Ronobir Lahiri, and Faith Potts all do fine work in the supporting roles that Norman has written to help fill out the storybut that story, its pert title character notwithstanding, is relentlessly, obsessively about Ginger. Which may, in the end, be what Norman is getting at: Trudy Blue is wonderfully wrought, a jewel of a play, a finely crafted mirror that reflects nothing so truly as our modern fascination with ourselves.
Shakespeare had a knack for the neatly constructed play, too, but The Taming of the Shrew isn’t the most symmetrical thing he ever wrote. Never mind the subplot that finds the shrew’s little sister courted by threecount ’em, threedifferent lovers, nearly all of them masquerading as something or other they’re not; the most awkward thing about the play is that oddball introduction, with its drunk tinker and its jokester lord and its troupe of players hired to act out the main story as a kind of cautionary parable.
Purists perform it without seeming to notice that there’s no parallel wrap-up at the end of the evening; the less reverent just lop it off, content to stage the familiar story of the hellion Kate and the brash Petruchio, who comes swaggering in to teach her the error of her waspish ways. The cowpokes at Keegan Theatre, who’ve partnered again with Vpstart Crow to restage the comedy as a Wild West shoot-’em-up that might as well be titled The Bustin’ of the Bronc, opt to tack on a conclusion from a similar play by one of Shakespeare’s contemporaries, hoping perhaps to tidy things a bit by completing the framing device.
Whatever. The minutelong coda doesn’t add much to the proceedings, nor does the evening’s cornfed conceit illuminate anything about the play, though at least it cloaks leading man Mark Rhea in black cowboy leathers for most of the evening. Which is rewarding enough, assuming you like that kind of thing.
But if it doesn’t shed any perceptible light on what exactly poor Kate (a blustery, earthy Susan Grevengoed) gets out of the raw deal Shakespeare wrote for her, the Keegan’s latest collaboration with Vpstart Crow at least has a lot of fun making light of nearly everything that gets within range of its lariat. The humor is of the broad variety that makes audiences think fondly of the Marx Bros. and vaudeville and Abbott & Costello, and it’s a measure of Timothy Shaw’s directorial nerve that most of it comes off without feeling too forced. Say “Pisa”and several characters do, repeatedlyand you can be sure everyone onstage will stop for a beat to stare at the audience and lean momentarily to the left; let the script call for a squad of household servants and you’ll surely see them bumbling their way out the front door, tripping over each other like circus clowns on their way out of a Volkswagen.
The production drags a bit here and there, but it breaks down thoroughly only a few times, and then usually when it gets too full of its own clevernesswhen Hortensio’s consolation-prize widow turns out to be a vicious hunchbacked caricature, for instance, or when the throwaway character of the tailor gets played as a lisping fairy in a pink ten-gallon and a lavender cravat. Come to think of it, maybe there is something to be learned from this Shrew: that it’s possible to get so caught up in cracking jokes that you lose sight of what’s funny. CP