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A space case's trajectory

June 20, 2003|Philip Brandes | Special to The Times

It's a safe bet that a grown woman who greets visitors wearing an astronaut's helmet has a few issues in need of resolving, and the raison d'etre of Jim Henry's new play, "The Seventh Monarch," is to do just that.

Part satire, part psychological mystery, this portrait of a fragile genius struggling to find solid footing in an uncomprehending world is quirky, poignant and gripping in an accomplished premiere staging from NoHo's Road Theatre Company.

This second collaboration between playwright Henry and the Road continues the productive synergy established in 1999's long-running hit, "The Angels of Lemnos." Like its predecessor, "The Seventh Monarch" offers a sympathetic, poetic vision of misfits who've fallen through the holes in society's safety net, without oversentimentality.

Where "Angels" embraced the broader issue of the homeless, however, "Monarch" is less expansive and more idiosyncratic, focusing on the specific case of Miriam (Tamara Zook), a brilliant recluse whose obsession with astronauts makes her a literal "space case." Armed with her photographic memory and a bluntness that veers from disarming to obnoxious, Miriam cuts through the defenses of everyone she meets, in a sharp, edgy performance by Zook.

In addition to her freakish ability to memorize facts, Miriam may also be a dangerous psychopath, a possibility unearthed by Raina (Taylor Gilbert), the caseworker investigating why Miriam has been forging signatures on her parents' Social Security checks. Miriam's terse claim that her parents "fell away in the comet" arouses the predatory interest of an ambitious district attorney (Michael E. Dempsey) bent on prosecuting her for murder. Miriam is assigned a likable but overmatched public defender (Lance Guest), so her fate rests with Raina, whose effort to unravel the truth brings up her own emotional traumas.

Deborah LaVine's staging assuredly steers her cast through its emotional arcs, despite some awkwardly timed line readings (the reviewed performance still seemed about a week away from hitting its stride).

Production values are exceptional, capped by Desma Murphy's striking two-tiered set, its supporting pillars crafted from the stacks of newspapers Miriam has committed to memory.

The descent into a quirky genius' questionable mental condition invites comparisons with David Auburn's "Proof," but the two plays take the theme in very different directions. "Monarch" is less concerned with realism (it has some lapses of credibility to contend with), but its introspective meditations, built on the associative power of Henry's poetic language, are hauntingly beautiful. Phrases and images from this play linger long after the narrative sense has faded.

*

'The Seventh Monarch'

Where: Road Theatre Company at Deaf West Theatre, 5112 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood.

When: Fridays and Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m.

Ends: Aug. 16

Price: $20

Contact: (323) 655-TKTS

Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes

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