Do everything exactly the way you’re taught and you still get screwed in the brutal world of BETHANY, a new play by Laura Marks now in its West Coast premiere at the Old Globe’s White Theatre.
It’s a brutal world that seems all too familiar, as in, well, take a look around. The young mother fighting to regain custody of her five-year-old has her health, a winning manner, a quick resourcefulness and (for the moment, at least) a full-time job. Yet, according to a Globe program note contributed by the San Diego Housing Federation, she could never survive here. Not by a whole fifth of her income.
And she’s hardly alone. Everybody in the play teeters on the brink of ruin or already has slipped over the edge. The playwright hasn’t time for background – no origin stories, no specific locales, not even last names – in her urgent report from the roiling crisis that rips at civilization.
One character has a good investment councilor. One staggers under added duties of laid-off co-workers. One slithers beneath the radar. None inspire much hope.
Yet the young mother, Crystal by name, is irresistible, battling for whatever shred of dignity she can clutch to help win back her daughter. Despite being employee of the month twice in one year at the Ford dealership where she sold cars, she lost her house to the bank. After a couple of nights sleeping in her car, she sought help from a local shelter.
As she bitterly tells the story, her welcome was: “Sorry, the shelter’s full but why don’t we take that little girl off your hands?” Now she must have permission to even speak to the child.
But she’s fighting back with a rickety plan that requires several elements to stay aligned just long enough for the agency to restore her daughter. Her new job at the Saturn dealer is a straight 7½ percent commission: Less than $2,500 if she sells a luxury model to a slick customer dawdling over a decision. She’s found a deserted house, in a nightmare tract neighborhood of deserted repossessions, that still has electricity and water turned on, plus a door lock that yields to a plastic credit card. She’s stocking it with some cheap bulk food, cleaning stuff and a few sticks of furniture from Goodwill. Just enough, with a forged lease and a bit of luck, to satisfy the social worker coming next week.
She hasn’t planned much beyond that.
The plan almost seems to be working. Except life intrudes. That customer is far more interested in her than the car. That house already has a squatter, a skittish, seedy wild thing who babbles of government conspiracies and mind-control. And the Saturn dealership, this being the year 2009, is about to fail.
Crystal takes chances, changes her story on the run and stays in the game. Her ability to sparkle on cue obscures the steel within. Despite a trashy culture that has perverted her survival skills, this is a mother fighting for her child. And when the author lowers the curtain, Crystal still is not beaten.
The Globe production has been staged with an artistry matching the author’s in nearly every case. Only the brief, savage violence rings false. Otherwise, Gaye Taylor Upchurch allows room for the play to resonate. She lets the text carry the load and helps the actors find the precise path between each character’s right and wrong. Upchurch weaves a scrim of sincerity that supplements Marks’ remarkable ear for precise, loaded dialogue.
Jennifer Ferrin gives Crystal a vibrant, pert front to the world and suggests, rather than shows, her depths. The character keeps on being whapped in the face by unforeseen crises which Ferrin has her absorb with barely a stagger and always a recovery plausible enough to move right along.
The troll skulking around the house, surviving on surplus C-rations and solitude, is played by Carlo Alban with a rich gloss of crazy but a preoccupied paranoia that makes him harmless. That lusting customer, seen preening himself for his lectures on predatory capitalism, is presented as a major slime bag by James Shanklin, who may have done overtime researching that façade and those outfits among middle management.
The supporting roles, as rich in suggested detail as they are spare in specifics, must have tempted the actors to expand. Upchurch’s steady vision obviously ruled and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson as the worn social worker, DeAnna Driscoll as a dour supervisor at Saturn and Amanda Naughton as an anxious wife all contribute their bits to the downward spiral.
Lauren Helpern devised the frightfully sterile set, including murals of regimented suburbia; Sarah J. Holden found costumes all too right; and Japhy Weideman sliced the stage with, in effect, walls of light.
For more on this subject, see Arthur Miler’s DEATH OF A SALESMAN. Attention must be paid. BETHANY may lack Miller’s howling at the gods but it provides instead a female perspective of indomitable sustenance. Willie Loman had a wife; Crystal has only herself. Life is guilty in both cases.