Over the course of the fall of 2015, more than 50 DC area theater companies will participate in the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, an event celebrating new works created by women. Through their New Works in Action program, Spooky Action Theater Company made their contribution with the fascinating and thought-provoking play, Can’t Complain.
The New Works in Action program began in 2013, and encourages collaboration between new and veteran theater professionals. Spooky Action Theater chooses two to four scripts to workshop, and build from mere ideas to a full, staged production complete with actors and design. The goal of the program is to encourage the development of new work as well as bring diversity to the DC theatre scene.
Written by Christine Evans and directed by Michael Bloom, Can’t Complain follows Rita (Cornelia Hart) as she combats the aftermath of a stroke in a rehabilitation center. Over the course of the play, the audience travels in and out of Rita’s mind, and they begin to see that the stroke’s impact on her memory and consciousness causes her to interact with characters who may not necessarily exist. While some characters are very real, others simply exist in Rita’s mind. Evans brilliantly tackles the challenges and heartbreak of Rita’s relationships, from her strained bond with her daughter, Maureen (Tonya Beckman), to her complicated friendship with Iris (Wendy Wilmer), which Bloom in turn brought to life in an intriguing manner.
Set Designer Luciana Stecconi cleverly used the space to her advantage. She used risers for the audience seating, which brought us all closer to the intimate setting of a rehabilitation center. Stecconi created a realistic room in front of us, complete with two beds, walls, and a door. However, in bringing us so closer to action, Stecconi and Bloom collaborated to enhance the feeling of intruding upon Rita’s private life, as well as the reality she was creating for herself. For a room that felt so small, Stecconi beautifully utilized every ounce of space, especially in the placement of entrances and exits. In addition to the typical doors to the room, Stecconi built a door within one of the beds through which characters could enter and exit Rita’s room. Not only did this increase the shock element of the play, but Stecconi also cleverly emphasized the idea that we were experiencing Rita’s altered reality.
Bloom cleverly used those entrances and exits to his advantage as he built this world in Rita’s mind. While I do not wish to give away the specifics, he specifically had characters that were “real” always enter from one area, while those who were fantasy used another. Over time this consistency helped emphasize which elements of the story were simply a product of Rita’s imagination. The effect was powerful, and the choice was fascinating to watch unfold.
The ensemble of actors as a whole brought this thought-provoking work to life in an incredible manner. Wilmer showcased spot-on comedic timing as Iris. However, at the same time, Wilmer captured the sympathetic side to this old, female character that may crack jokes at the expense of others, but does so out of loneliness.
Both Nicole Ruthmarie and Eric M. Messner carried the challenge of playing multiple characters, but both tackled the task with grace. Ruthmarie’s approach to Jansis was adorably sweet, and her beautiful voice rang throughout the theater when she sang with Rita. Messner’s physical acting abilities brought comedy to his portrayal of The Man in Blue, and made the character a joy to watch on stage.
One of the most interesting aspects to watch unfold was the relationship between Rita and Maureen. Hart and Beckman brilliantly portrayed the strained relationship. While Maureen loves her mother, there is anger, and Beckman infused that conflict into each of their interactions. While Rita made some poor choices as a mother, Hart highlighted the sympathetic qualities that made her impossible to dislike. Together, Beckman and Hart created a heartbreaking story arc that was fascinating to watch from beginning to end.
Brilliant writing and direction, incredible acting, and visually striking stage design make Can’t Complain a ‘Must See’ event. Christine Evans’ play makes an exciting contribution to the Women’s Voices Theater Festival, and I know I look forward to seeing future productions that Spooky Action Theater has to offer.
Running Time: Two hours, with one intermission.
Can’t Complain plays through October 25, 2015 at Spooky Action Theater playing at Universalist National Memorial Church – 1810 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, purchase them at the door, or online.
Spooky Action Theater’s ‘Don’t Complain’ Plays Tonight Through October 25th.