Three generations of women in one contemporary American family prove “ready for their close-up” in Technicolor Life, a world premiere at Rep Stage in Howard County.
Don’t make a mistake thinking Technicolor Life will be some sort of Hollywood tell-all. The drama by Jami Brandli takes on divorce, wounded warriors, euthanasia, and the trials of adolescence with an unflinching naturalism that brings the humanity of its four principal characters into smart focus.
Susan is a divorced, middle-aged lawyer who finds her resources of level-headed pragmatism sorely strained. The return of her embittered soldier-daughter Billie from a war zone followed soon after by the arrival of her own relentlessly upbeat “drama queen” mother, Franny, is almost too much for one woman to bear.
Billie lost a hand in Iraq and has run away from VA hospitals where they failed to address the rage behind her physical injury and sense of betrayal.
Grandmother Franny also turns out to be something of a runaway. She has had a close brush with cancer and despite her cheery disposition wants no part of a retirement home existence and a lonely end played out far from her family.
Watching all this and commenting on it — at least as much of it as she can comprehend — is 14-year-old daughter Maxine. Maxine’s buoyant enthusiasm for life and her curiosity about new words and hidden meanings provide the yeast for a narrative that could threaten to become unappetizing.
Maxine laps up all the movie fantasies of gender and romance as seen in the Hollywood musicals that play such a big part in her grandmother’s world. But at the same time she is trying to come to terms with sister Billie’s harsh reality.
In the character of Maxine, Technicolor Life becomes something more than another dichotomy of art and reality. It presents a compacted view of adolescence as a private war zone where no one’s truth has yet emerged the victor.
This premiere staging is blessed with a fine cast assembled under the trained hand and eye of Director Joseph W. Ritsch, a co-producing Artistic Director of Rep Stage.
Grace Bauer makes for a thoroughly sympathetic Susan, properly vexed by the extremes in behavior of her loved ones, and yet avoiding the stereotype of the ineffectual and disconnected mom.
Shayna Blass never hits a false note as Billie. She does not back away from the ugliness of her character’s anger, respecting the audience to find the proper empathy for her plight. She also scores in her tender, romantic moments with the two sympathetic soldiers in her life, both played with sensitivity and credibility by Thony Mena.
As Maxine, Isa Guitian makes her Howard County debut at Rep Stage in a performance bursting with vitality, optimism, confusion and humor. The 11th-grade student at the Baltimore School for the Arts is a natural talent we hope to see much more of in the future.
Giving the most indelible performance of the evening, though, is Valerie Lash as Franny. Bursting into the play in a blonde glamour wig and displaying a larger-than-life bravado, Lash soon takes the whole notion of the all-wise grandmother to another level entirely. She is clearly giving her best all-around performance here since playing Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? at Howard Community College two decades ago.
In strong support of the leads are Shea-Mikal Green and Heather Lynn Peacock as the fantasy representations of movie stars Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe. James Whalen also comes on strong in the polar-opposite roles of a bullying combat officer and a compassionate guidance counselor.
Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger sets the action against a scrim wall that helps the director express the estrangement and submerged inner lives of the characters.
Two tall panels slide open on occasion to allow various minimal set pieces to be rotated in. The effect is not as seamlessly fluid as intended, however, and the transitions occasionally slow the pacing.
Lighting design by Dan Covey and sound design by Bryan Schlein successfully underscore the variety of flashbacks and moods.
Jami Brandli is a young playwright with a gift for realism that shines through Technicolor Life. If pressed on how it could be improved I would say that it is too front-loaded with exposition that does not all seem critical enough to delay our involvement with the characters. They have their own voices, after all, and prove more than capable of speaking for themselves
Running Time: Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission.
Technicolor Life plays through November 8, 2015 at Rep Stage performing in the Smith Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.