Review: ‘Really’ at Theatre Exile

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If you’re in the mood for a straightforward narrative with a clear-cut beginning, middle, and ending, then Theatre Exile’s Philadelphia premiere of Really, by Brooklyn-based playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury, probably isn’t the show for you. But if you want to be challenged, haunted, and provoked into considering the big issues of life, death, and remembrance through the lens of art and the confines of personal perception, this non-linear existentialist meditation on being and seeing, directed with conceptual prowess by Brenna Geffers, will open your eyes and make you ponder if the nature of reality, and the facts of history, are absolute or relative.

Nancy Boykin, Matteo Scammell, and Jessica Johnson. Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Nancy Boykin, Matteo Scammell, and Jessica Johnson. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

The devastating realizations that “I can’t see what you see” and “No one will remember” are made in the context of a three-hander that moves back and forth in time, and in and out of the characters’ minds, as memories of the departed Calvin (Matteo Scammell) – a talented, but often difficult, young photographer – flood the thoughts of his loquacious Mother (Nancy Boykin) and taciturn Girlfriend (Jessica Johnson). The women, who are together for an awkward photo-shoot in the live-in studio that Calvin and his Girlfriend (a less accomplished photographer) once shared, conjure visions of him from their own experiences and perspectives (of gender, race, age, and status). He appears and reappears in unsettling reminiscences and vivid flashbacks that manifest themselves during their uncomfortable conversation and activities, as they focus on the physical details and set-up of the photos (with in-kind support for the production provided by Photographer/Visual Artist/Curator Pete Checchia) to evade the real emotional issues of pain, love, and loss that they should, and should have addressed.

Employing the metaphor of photography to explore the concept of what is real, the work raises many profound questions about the mysteries of our existence and legacy that remain unanswered, and unanswerable. Can a photograph really capture a person’s essence, or just the outward appearance? Is that image really an accurate representation, when the pose, facial expression, lighting, and setting have all been staged, and only the best shots are selected by the photographer and sitter to be printed as a fixed image for posterity? Is it the failure of art to be unable to reveal a person’s innermost thoughts, emotions, and personality, which even those who are closest to the subject cannot agree upon or fully discern? Will anyone even care who we really were throughout the course of history, or will we merely be viewed as photos of dead people in centuries to come?

Jessica Johnson, Nancy Boykin, and Matteo Scammell. Photo by Paola Nogueras.
Jessica Johnson, Nancy Boykin, and Matteo Scammell. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

Geffers and her excellent cast give us glimpses into the psyches and hints at the situations of the characters, without disclosing too much at once or arriving at any one definitive truth. In their distinctive performances, the long silences and frequent pauses of Drury’s script are wrought with tension and meaning, their interactions and recollections are at once telling and enigmatic (though a brief slow-motion walking sequence and the barefooted state of the players seem more suggestive of the trend of neo-expressionism than of the show’s growing existentialist angst). To describe any more would do a disservice to the actors’ slowly revelatory characterizations and the audience’s journey through the play. As with history, we are left to piece together the story from what remains in their selective accounts and in the extant physical artifacts (the archived photographs seen here are especially jarring); as with art, it’s all in the eye of the beholder, each of us with a subjective response and interpretation.

Costumes by LeVonne Lindsay and props by Alicia Crosby give clues to the characters’ personalities. Set Designer Thom Weaver supports the motif of photography with a sparsely furnished white environment that maximizes the illumination needed for a photo-shoot, while also evoking an ethereal otherworldly sensibility. Amanda Jensen’s lighting and Chris Sannino’s soundscape, filled with recurrent flashes and clicks, effectively accentuate the production’s unsettling tone.

Really is an affecting work that will leave you shaken and disturbed. And isn’t that precisely what you expect from Theatre Exile?

Running time: Approximately 65 minutes, without intermission.

Really plays through Sunday, February 18, 2018, performing at The Latvian Society – 531 N. 7th St, Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the company at (215) 218-4022, or purchase online.