No American theater serves the almost-there playwright better than South Coast Repertory. Take Jan Eliasberg's staging of Craig Lucas' "Reckless." This isn't just a matter of putting a new script on its feet. Eliasberg really makes it fly--until the play itself develops engine trouble.
This is an earlier script than Lucas' "Blue Window," which has had a nice little success on the East Coast this winter. It's a morality play in the form of a fantasy, not unlike David Mamet's "Edmond." Again, an American innocent is thrust into the nightmare flux of the real world and struggles to find a place where he can put his feet down.
Lucas has a lighter touch than Mamet's, though, and seems less inclined to punish his hero, here a young woman. Rachel (the admirable Joan McMurtrey) goes through hell, as Edmond does. But it's a less dire kind of hell, more like Alice's Wonderland. And Rachel comes out at a better place than Edmond. He finds his peace in degradation. She becomes a healer.
Just how Rachel achieves her salvation is hard for the audience to see. By attrition, it seems. One minute she has hit bottom. The next minute, the light of authenticity is on her. Not much help for the perplexed here. We don't want Rachel to stand up and tell us what she has learned about life, but we could use a few more clues.
As a stage magician, Lucas works this particular trick with his hands too far under the table. Otherwise, one enjoys the play's drop-the-handkerchief quality. Like Alice, Rachel goes from one unfortunate encounter to the next with the speed of light, yet it all seems to connect--if not quite add up. Credit the audience's powers of imagination and a quite extraordinary production.
It begins with Cliff Faulkner's setting, which uses sheets and mirrors to take us from Rachel's pastel suburban world, with her sweet little trundle bed, to a nightmare world dominated by a color not usually associated with nightmares: white, as in snow.
Rachel thinks she wants it to be Christmas always, but "Santa" in this play is an anagram for "Satan," and jolly wintry gear (ski masks, quilted mackinaws) can suddenly look ominous. Barbara Cox's costumes and Tom Ruzika's lighting understand exactly what's needed here.
The actors are without a fault. Rachel starts out as a child bride even sillier than Ibsen's Nora, and ends up almost too enlightened for comfort. Actress McMurtrey makes her believable at every stage, and even lovable--one of those women who think that everything is at once their fault and subject to their solution. "Oh, right," she says at one point, "it's my turn to cook." As if that would solve anything.
Jeffrey Alan Chandler plays the first creature she meets in her Wonderland, a strange man in the ski mask who turns out to be a quasi-saint; or perhaps just passive. It's a tricky role, handled with utter naturalness.
Ann Hearn is Chandler's wheelchair-bound waif-wife who pretends to be a deaf mute, because he likes it. It's a mark of Eliasberg's tact as a director that we're enchanted rather than turned off--the feyness that's built into the play never falls over the brink into archness, thanks to the discrimination of the acting.
Much doubling is required (very effective in a dream play) and the supporting cast keeps each face distinct--Anni Long, for instance, as the ever-smiling lady in charge of possibly nefarious things at the Hands Across the Sea Relief Agency, and as a number of mental health professionals. Michael Canavan, Richard Doyle and Fran Bennett are to their various marks, too. If "Reckless" fails to deposit us at a station we recognize, getting there is considerable fun.
'RECKLESS' Craig Lucas' play, at South Coast Repertory's Second Stage. Director Jan Eliasberg. Setting Cliff Faulkner. Costumes Barbara Cox. Lighting Tom Ruzika. Original music/sound design Daniel Birnbaum. Dramaturge John Glore. Production manager Paul Hammond. Stage manager Andy Tighe. With Joan McMurtrey, Michael Canavan, Jeffrey Alan Chandler, Ann Hearn, Richard Doyle, Anni Long, Fran Bennett. Plays Tue.-Sun. at 8:30 p.m., with Sat.and Sun. matinees at 3. Closes Feb. 17. Tickets $15-$18. 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa, (714) 957-4033.