Review: ‘The Gap’ at Azuka Theatre

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The Gap, Emma Goidel’s world premiere play for Azuka Theatre, focuses on Lee, a theater practitioner constructing a performance piece about her older sister, Nicole. Nicole claims, with no irony or doubt, that she is an alien and has been since a watershed incident that occurred when Nicole was age five, and Lee was three – an episode Lee witnessed and both have blocked.

Maggie Johnson & Alice Yorke. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.
Maggie Johnson & Alice Yorke. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

The Gap explores in various ways, theatrically via scenes from Lee’s embryonic play and in alleged real life via sequences with Lee and her family, what exactly happened on the evening of Nicole’s perceived transformation.

It’s an intriguing premise. But even though Goidel throws out a lot of red herrings, her play remains inert. No matter what is revealed or how strange, heartfelt, or significant it may seem, nothing catches fire or excites burning curiosity about the sisters’ experience. Or the sisters themselves.

There’s a payoff in the final two minutes, but it falls short. Goidel’s coda to The Gap becomes a last-ditch effort that in effect says, “Here’s what I’ve been getting at that I didn’t quite get at in my script for the actual play.”

The point Goidel is trying to make, involving trauma and PTSD, is an important one that rates exploring through dramatization. She and her character, Lee, are on to something. The problem is The Gap doesn’t express it within the boundaries of its text. At least not in any way that, in spite of the introductions of aliens, becomes provocative or generates intensity.

Goidel’s intentions are clear. What’s missing is a story and dialogue that work as absorbing metaphor and reveal her theme without being blatant or simplistic, two other traits that plague many new plays. Theater is about showing, not telling, so bald declaration of what’s happening doesn’t work.

Alice Yorke, Jaime Maseda & Maggie Johnson. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.
Alice Yorke, Jaime Maseda & Maggie Johnson. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

Goidel has a voice, one that emerged strongly in a previous Azuka production, Local Girls. But this time, sequences seem extended beyond need. One passage, which seems to come from nowhere, involves the young actress helping Lee visualize her work walking away from the process. There are only so many ways to say, “I’m going,” “Please don’t,” But I am,” “But you can’t,” etc. without the byplay becoming tedious.

Director Rebecca Wright, whose productions usually spring to visceral life, cannot generate her usual magic with The Gap. The myriad conversations are quiet and controlled, even those in which Lee’s family are exposing secrets. Emotion is rare, and when it emerges, it seems contrived. The tone of Wright’s production adds to the dullness of the material and gives The Gap a feeling of stagnation.

The restrained nature of the production seems to extend to the acting. No one, not even an ominous alien, has the chance to soar. Maggie Johnson makes Lee seem enclosed by her tortured quest to know what influenced her sister and her equally tortured conclusions when memories come to light. Johnson’s portrayal is plausible for the character, but it seems to rob her of animation and prevent the enlisting of sympathy for her or the hidden truths she tries to discover and unravel.

Alice Yorke’s Nicole has more reason to build a shell and stay within it. Her secretive withholding and reluctance to revisit her past make more sense in Yorke’s matter-of-fact performance.

Geneviève Perrier creates some sparks as Lee and Nicole’s mother, a woman who is having a better time in life than either of her daughters. Ciera Gardner does well as the protégé helping Lee realize her performance piece. Jaime Maseda provides some fun as the everyday kind of guy to whom Nicole is married. He and Perrier enjoy their moments as aliens.

Jillian Keys dresses Lee, Nicole, and their family in a plain style that denotes how basic they are. Michael Kiley’s sound design underscores the more ominous part of Goidel’s text. Apollo Mark Weaver’s set is minimal but versatile. Masha Tsimring’s lighting enhances sequences in which mood or eeriness is warranted.

The Gap needs to be refined so what is promising in the piece, a good theme with a potentially interesting conclusion, can be brought to light.

Running Time: 90 minutes, with no intermission.

Ciera Gardner & Maggie Johnson. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.
Ciera Gardner & Maggie Johnson. Photo by Johanna Austin/AustinArt.org.

The Gap plays through November 19, 2017 at Azuka Theatre, performing at The Louis Bluver Theatre at The Drake — 302 South Hicks Street, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 563-1100, or purchase them online.