‘Grieving For Genevieve’ at Venus Theatre by Amanda Gunther

FOUR STARS
Isn’t there a statute of limitations on guilt? When a mother is involved, the answer is always and indefinitely no. When Delilah, the middle child and ‘bad daughter’ of the three Peck sisters, announces her wedding to her third husband it brings an unlikely band of characters together for the first time after a long-standing estrangement. Chain smoking, retired nurse mother Genevieve, with her down-home ‘Bawlmer Hon’ sound stirs up the pot as her eldest daughter Danni the NYC Luthier, and her youngest daughter, Angel the beer-drinking, none-too-bright convent novice, return home as bride’s maids. Venus Theatre’s Grieving For Genevieve – a peculiar family drama – is not without its extremely coarse language and high strung tensions, and certainly puts a fresh perspective on the ‘fun’ of dysfunction.

(l to r) Angel (Kelsey Painter) Delilah (Ty Hallmark), Danni (Deborah Randall), and Genevieve (Karen Costanzi). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

(l to r) Angel (Kelsey Painter), Delilah (Ty Hallmark), Danni (Deborah Randall), and Genevieve (Karen Costanzi). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Set Designer Amy Rhodes plunges the audience straight away into the female menagerie of this disheveled household. The entire production takes place inside Delilah’s house, but there are hints of all of the character’s strewn upon the wall. Rhodes’ decision to reflect the cluttered hectic lifestyles of the characters in her design is a symbolic and meaningful approach to giving the text a layered dimension of existence. Choosing to take the chaos of over-decorating in a vertical direction, lathering all sorts of things on the walls and hanging suspended, frees up the playing space for the actors to really dig their heels into the action of the performance.

What would a play about sibling rivalry and disconnected family be if there wasn’t a little fighting? And not just catty word-fighting but actual brawling about on the table and physical blows? Fight Choreographer James Jager ensures the safety of the performers while creating authentic dramatic moments of tension in his stunt work with the women. The main fighting falls between Danni and Delilah and the serious scene, that practically wrecks the set, has a tight and realistic feel to it thanks to Jager’s skilled approach.

There seem to be a great many lines of deep meaning and even of comic relief in this production, often delivered by Genevieve, and occasionally some by Danni, that unfortunately are lost to the audience because both characters end up being delivered as soft spoken. In moments of extreme heat when they’re both shouting you can hear them just fine, but the overall ‘speaking’ volume that they use needs to be bumped up just a hair so that the brilliance that is crafted into the dialogue can be heard.

The disconnect with this production comes from the play itself. Playwright Kathleen Warnock has a great starting concept for the story and has crafted the beginnings of solid characters into the play. But Warnock’s work is missing moments of emotional build-up, and in places has too much going on to really keep the central themes of the story focused. Adding the extra details that the main character is also a girl scout troupe leader and responsible for cookie delivery, on top of her already chaotic lifestyle (despite not having any children of her own in the troupe) is one example of how extra plot elements jumble up the truth of the story. Warnock’s text is not fully supportive of the large emotional outbursts that Director Deborah Randall crafts into the characters, and leaves us searching for where these impressive emotions come from.

That being said, Randall and her three co-stars manage to carry the production with their intense acting, sincere commitment to the project and overall sense of existence on the stage. Rising above the challenges presented in the script, the play is mostly a success despite its textual shortcomings. Randall hones in on key character moments of contention, letting the raw emotions of anger and frustration carry what the words alone cannot support.

The four talented female performers each bring something unique to their characters and work extremely well as a fluid ensemble. There are rarely moments when the four of them are together on the stage but when they are, they manage to craft believable moments of reality in this dysfunctional family.

Angel (Kelsey Painter) is a rather quiet and slightly slow character. With languid speech and a lost look in her eyes most of the time, Painter’s character isn’t terribly bright. The major reveal that showcases Painter’s real ability as an actor comes during her eruptive moment late in the play when Angel turns from mouse to monster, bellowing and exploding just like her other two sisters. Painter, like the others, grounds herself in the character’s reality, creating a commanding presence on the stage even when her character is meager and small.

Delilah (Ty Hallmark) is as sultry and sinful as her name would imply. With a big barking mouth, foulest in the play might I add, Hallmark becomes a master of mean and rules the stage with her mighty short-fused temper. She’s a constant screaming fury who doesn’t mix words when it comes to letting everyone know how her character feels, and watching her banter in a manner most violent with Danni becomes almost comical. Hallmark drives the overall action of the production, her fits and furies really moving the others along the play’s natural pace.

Danni (Deborah Randall) juxtaposes apathy with anger and resentment; a well rounded blend of disgust and frustration carried in both her voice and physicality. Randall’s interaction, particularly with Hallmark, highlight some of the finer moments of the production, really bringing the audience’s focus to the problems at hand. Her role reversal from escapee to where she ends by the end of the production is an impressive show of Randall’s versatility as a performer.

Genevieve (Karen Costanzi) is the epitome of a Baltimore mother. With her tempered ‘Bawlmerese’ accent, from the ‘oh hon’ to some of the other clever wording used in the production, Costanzi has a firm handle on how to execute the Baltimore sound. Her nagging and nettling motherly nature is reminiscent of every mother, and is extremely relatable to anyone who has ever had a mother. The commitment to her character’s physicality and overall presence on the stage is astonishing, particularly after the majoring turning point in the production. Subtly is not lost on Costanzi after this major plot point and her character becomes that much more engaging and fascinating to watch.

 Genevieve (Karen Costanzi) and Danni (Deborah Randall). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Genevieve (Karen Costanzi) and Danni (Deborah Randall). Photo by Curtis Jordan.

Overall, the production has merit. These four female performers work incredibly hard to deliver a solid and well performed play with honest emotions and gripping reality that makes you confront your own family situation by the end of their story.

Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes no intermission

Grieving For Genevieve plays through June 30, 2013 at Venus Theatre  Play Shack – 21 C Street in historic Laurel, MD. For tickets call the box office at (202) 236-4078, or purchase them online.

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