SAN DIEGO — An actress waiting to go on stage sits at a makeup table and tells the audience how much she resents having to endure the scrutiny of those she does not even know.
If she is going to submit to what she calls the "lacerating self-exposure" endemic to her profession, she feels that the least she should get in return are biographies of the audience, telling her where they live, the plays they've seen and why their last relationships broke up.
The actress asks for the house lights and gets them. She walks around studying faces, challenging people to open up to her, to be at least silent partners in a dialogue.
It is hard to imagine a more appropriate opening for "Talking With . . . " which is now playing at the Marquis Public Theater's Gallery Theater through Aug. 2. One by one, with a minimum of props and fuss, 11 women, including the actress, offer distinct monologues in which they dare the audience to open up to them, listen to their stories and take their hard-earned life lessons to heart.
That the net result is indeed a talking "with" rather than "to" the audience is a credit to the fine material that premiered at the Actors' Theater of Louisville and later played Off-Broadway under the pseudonym "Jane Martin" and to this sensitive, sometimes funny and often touching production by the Marquis.
The characters are an extraordinary company of ordinary women. On the surface, they have very little in common. But what they do share are ideas and dreams which seem like suspiciously cracked imports from the land of crazy. Under James B. Johnson's wisely restrained direction, the actresses play their parts absolutely straight and each in turn reveals the cracks as just what is needed to allow the light to stream through.
At the opposite ends of faith are the baton twirler and the snake handler. As the twirler, Jo Carey projects the glittering diamond-hard charm of one who firmly believes that when her baton goes up and catches the light, she is up there with it, bringing back a piece of God.
In contrast, Betty Matthews' "Handler" brings home the pathos of a barefoot country girl who suffers a crisis of faith when her church's practice of requiring its parishioners to handle snakes results in the death of someone she loves.
The varied background of the women is highlighted by the well-chosen props (no set credit given) and by J.S. Myers' and E.L. Matthews' simple but effectively individualized costumes. For the snake handler, the details are plain: a peasant dress, bare feet and a worn blue box for the unseen snakes. They contrast smartly with the twirler's styled hair, sequins and silver baton glistening in the air.
Ellery Brown's lighting and sound work nicely, but consistent blackouts would heighten the drama before each scene.
Though all of the vignettes are interesting and well-designed, some characters seem so far in the wackosphere that they require extra charisma to carry them off--sometimes more than they are given.
Trina Kaplan, as the bag lady in love with McDonald's, is a bit too genteel. Mary Lynn could use more nervous energy as the housewife who thinks she's in Oz. And Helena Baranski would better portray the woman obsessed with lights if she played the part bigger.
These parts would not stand out so much, of course, if they weren't playing against the glaring intensity of the other performances.
Jennifer Myers Johnson, who recently directed the stirring "Vinegar Tom" here, is poignant as the woman mourning the death of her mother. Elie Freedman, genuinely pregnant, brings a fierce pride to the woman in childbirth who knows she is going to have a deformed baby and wants the child anyway.
Kelly Rae Hero lends gritty force to the rider who is losing her beloved rodeo to commercialism. In two theatrical pieces, Paty Sipes delivers her role as the actress in the opening vignette with anger and heart, and Lara Dolinski is wackily appealing as a desperate auditioner.
Getting the right show matched up with the right space can be a tricky endeavor. But when it works, the effects are combustible.
"Talking With . . . " is a happy union between an intimate series of stories and a cozy, stageless theater that allows the raw, passionate nature of the material to spill out into the house.
One of the most chilling, moving pieces involves a woman who tattoos herself as a way of showing that she has been "marked by life." If the memory of moving experiences is, in itself, a form of internal tattoo, then "Talking With . . . " creates the kind of magic that will leave its audience similarly marked.
"TALKING WITH . . . " By Jane Martin. Director is James B. Johnson. Lighting and sound by Ellery Brown. Costumes by J.S. Myers and E.L. Matthews. With Paty Sipes, Mary Lynn, Lara Dolinski, Kelly Rae Hero, Jo Carey, Jennifer Myers Johnson, Helena Baranski, Betty Matthews, Elie Freedman, Trina Kaplan and Virginia (Ginger) Perry. At 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday until Aug. 2. No performance July 4. At the Marquis Public Theater's Gallery Theater, 3717 India St.