How did you get to where you are today? Was it with help from your loved ones, or in spite of them? Are you experiencing déjà vu? What is the price of fame? Can you really achieve greatness just by wanting it? Are you experiencing déjà vu?
This is just a sampling of the many questions asked by playwright Liz Maestri in her newest play, Inheritance Canyon, directed by Lise Bruneau for Taffety Punk as part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival. This play is a companion to Maestri’s previous Owl Moon, produced by the Punks in 2011. No previous knowledge of Owl Moon is necessary however; this new play stands completely on its own.
Instead of simply writing a continuation or a prequel to Owl Moon, Maestri has taken the same set of characters (and some newcomers) and given them a brand new landscape: a strange, post-apocalyptic canyon that exists somewhere between the American West and our imaginations. The canyon’s inhabitants are a motley crew who, in the face of a terrible disaster, are confined to their small encampment on the canyon’s edge. When they’re not visiting Dr. Jens Krࠢӧger’s lab for ongoing governmental testing, that is.
If this sounds somewhat vague, that’s because it is. Maestri has deliberately left a lot of room for ambiguity in terms of the sci-fi/apocalypse landscape. I will freely admit to not fully understanding the nature of the experiments or the condition of the canyon, but this did not inhibit my understanding of the story. The wonderfully drawn characters more than make up for the enigmatic setting, and it is their intense desires, compounded by hatred for their status as lab rats, that compellingly drive forward the plot.
There’s Shell (Esther Williamson), who wants more than anything to prove herself as a scientist despite lack of credentials. Gary (James Flanagan) who would do anything for a shot at Hollywood even though he’s completely self-taught. Dr. Krӧger (Dan Crane) who would kill for his research to be internationally recognized. And Sal (Teresa Castracane), who just doesn’t want to feel so lonely. It seems, even in this world, the canyon is grander on the other side.
Everyone is so preoccupied with themselves, gaining recognition, and becoming famous that they trample over one another, both figuratively and literally, in the race to the top, without hesitation. It isn’t until Shell has a surprising encounter with…herself (Gwen Grastorf) that she understands the consequences of her ruthlessness. But by then, it may be too late to save herself from herself.
The entire cast has worked hard at defining the world of this surreal canyon, and finding their place in it. Williamson leads the way, moving from issues of existential importance to interpersonal drama without missing a beat. Flanagan and Castracane are a great comedic duo, whose song and dance routines have the audience in stitches. A real strength of the entire cast is their ability to play both sides of the comedic/dramatic coin, both a testament to their work and Maestri’s fully dimensionalized characters. Even the unnamed Camera Kid (played by Morgan Sendek), who doesn’t figure into the action until the last minutes of the play, showed sincere emotional depth.
Director Bruneau has kept the staging very simple as well which is especially welcome in such a science fiction-y setting, where there is so often a tendency to focus on gimmicky futuristic paraphernalia. This play needed little more than a few set pieces by Daniel Flint, evocative lighting by Brittany Diliberto, and Kathy Cashel’s beautiful compositions and sound design to set the perfect tone and let the characters take center stage.
Inheritance Canyon is a play that asks many more questions than it answers. But the way they are asked, through fully relatable characters set in extreme circumstances in a world that just barely resembles our own, is not only entertaining, but completely engaging.
Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission.