[media-credit name=”Ann Van Alt” align=”aligncenter” width=”640″][/media-credit]Change is afoot in the very small town of Thebes as it approaches its mayoral election. There Mary Johnston (Denise Fleenor), a Christian woman emanating down-home manners of social and moral pragmatism and poise, is seeking office against Joe, the incumbent candidate with whom she shares both an affection and some personal history. Mary and Joe have assembled teams to knock on doors, send mailers, post signs, and chant slogans. The scene is cozily familiar and homegrown, until it’s thrown on its ear. Such is the world of Thebes, as we are initially introduced to it, as imagined by local playwright Kristina Sutherland, co-founder and Artistic Director of Macha Monkey Productions.
Mary’s work of mounting her campaign is abruptly and profoundly interrupted when her eldest daughter, Erica (Katherine Grant-Suttie), returns to Thebes from the military, physically and mentally scarred and woefully disconnected from the home that no longer resembles the one she left for war. Erica is a stranger among familiar faces, she is lost. In resigned desperation she turns to drinking, quarreling and promiscuity, lashing out against the family and town that have moved on in her absence to new passions and concerns. This does not bode well for Mary’s political pursuits–Erica becomes a liability during a sensitive, high-stress time.
Meanwhile, Erica’s younger sister, Amelia (Meaghan Halverson, one of a few particularly bright talents among a strong cast), does her selfless best to support the campaign, willing to dress up in silly costumes, to attend hand-shaking functions, to offer her time in service, even as she agonizes through the toils of being a high school senior. Imagine Amelia’s resentment as her erratic sister is cut so much slack and given so much attention in spite of her dark volatility. Imagine how this resentment compounds as Erica, the veteran daughter, becomes a political asset and object of praise.
Mary, Erica, and Amelia each face unique problems of her own, each undertaking her own dramatic journey, enduring her own complete arch. It’s to the merit of Kristina Sutherland’s script that the three commingling journeys remain so distinct, yet so informing of the trajectories of the others. The result is a refreshing complexity, out of which the audience member is helped to see situations from several perspectives at loggerheads simultaneously. The experience is dynamic and challenging, yet buoyed in humor to a reality that allows room for hope and reconciliation in the face of hardships.
The play makes a couple strong aesthetic choices of special note:
Mary’s campaign team, which serves the narrative function of filling in would-be blanks in direct address, is a bumbling hive-mind. They are a chorus, sometimes completing one another’s sentences, sometimes speaking in unison as one voice, making for a surreal visual and auditory quality. Most of the members of ‘the chorus’ double roles; most undergo silly or bittersweet subplots. Mary’s campaign team is the source of most of the play’s humor, connected to the heart of the drama, yet outside enough to provide either rollicking or fumbling commentary that endears. Lantz Wagner as John, the head of the posse, is tremendously funny and commanding–he beguiled me as well in The Weir at Odd Duck last October.
Probably the strongest and most persistent images of the play come through Erica, in the form of PTSD flashbacks to combat-zones. These drive Erica, consumed with the convincing clarity of resurfacing, heart-wrenching experiences, to a tragic and ineffectual lashing out, behavior that makes her a potential danger to herself and others. Erica’s flashbacks, which tend to revolve around the memory of a fellow soldier, Jonah, are the most affronting and affecting of the play. They serve to take the safe, rural town of Thebes, so insular, so teeming with comical troubles, and reframe it, placing it in the greater context of what can be a dangerous world.
All told Thebes is a very strong script rendered by a very strong production, yet textually speaking the story ultimately falls a bit short of the bar it sets for itself in follow-through. Questions concerning the circumstances surrounding Erica’s discharge are not sufficiently answered, nor are questions surrounding the whereabouts of Erica’s father. The implications of the election, which is the backdrop for the play at large, are not manifested onstage with any kind of satisfying conclusiveness. The play’s consonant resolution, which emerges from a culminating mess of resentments and angst, is not sufficiently earned–the ending would be better suited for a sitcom than the beautiful and moving moments of the first hour-and-a-half of the play. An itchy middle-ground is struck, in which some story-lines are left too open, yet the play at large reaches for an airtight, closed ending that falls a little out of reach. This is to say, another draft may be in order.
Troubles with resolution aside, Thebes is a high caliber play very much worth seeing. Macha Monkey, with their focus on “fearless, funny, female theatre,” is very much worth supporting in this ambitious and thought-provolking effort.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., Sunday February 05th at 2:00 p.m., through February 11 // Theatre Off Jackson, 409 7th Avenue South // $15 in advance, $18 at door, tickets available through Brown Paper Tickets