Review: ‘Things That Are Round’ at Rep Stage

Rep Stage brings this world premiere by Callie Kimball to Howard County

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The mental province that stretches from magical thinking to ordinary self-delusion is given a new survey in Callie Kimball’s Things That Are Round, now having its world premiere via the Equity players at Rep Stage.

Seasoned playgoers with a yen for the modern should enjoy making the quick 90-minute flyover.

Thais Menendez and Beth Hylton in Things That Are Round at Rep Stage. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.
Thais Menendez and Beth Hylton in ‘Things That Are Round’ at Rep Stage. Photo by Katie Simmons-Barth.

This two-character play is the sort of minimalist work one used to have to travel to New York or Louisville to see. Increasingly, it is what we find at venturesome local theaters. In our neck of the woods that is Rep Stage, in residence at Howard Community College.

Under Producing Artistic Director Joseph W. Ritsch, the company has made a specialty of providing platforms for new women playwrights. What difference does gender make? Obviously, that depends on the work. In the instance of Things That Are Round, though, the answer is quite a bit.

For one thing, the starting point here is the working mother’s direct concern: Whom to hire as a daytime nanny for her very own precious toddler? The interview session that launches Kimball’s play should raise hairs on the neck of any observant mother.

Applying for the job, you see, is an unmoored millennial named Nina (Rep newcomer Thais Menendez). She fancies herself an opera singer, self-taught of course, and will kick-start her classical career once she can afford rent in New York City. That would seem to mean taking along her own small toddler and her unemployed husband, as well, but she may not be thinking that far ahead.

You would think the question of responsibility would send up a warning flag to her prospective employer, Tetherly (returning Beth Hylton). But Tetherly has a more personal concern: Her special needs four-year-old, Dylan, is gifted but deaf — and, oh yes, invisible.
How can one “look after” a child who cannot be seen? That’s the existential joke at the heart of the play, and it’s a good one. It instantly reaches into feelings of inadequacy that all humans confront.

Nina may not be able to see Dylan but she does see it is in her best interest to take the job. Meanwhile, Tetherly comes to depend more and more on Nina for validating her existence as a mother. After all, love is blind, and that’s all that is required when your child can’t be seen anyway.

Over the course of Kimball’s play, both of these women will return frequently to negotiations over money and limits of responsibility. What these two dubious mothers are really haggling over are matters of trust and their own “special needs.”

In structure, Things That Are Round reminded me a lot of a play we saw at Rep Stage last May, Sam Shepard’s True West. It offered the toxic male view of simmering rivalries and fears of failure. Both plays provoke a good deal of nervous laughter from audiences as they await an explosion.

Kimball’s play, though, has a tendency to go macro just when the audience is hoping to go micro. When Tetherly launches into cosmic riffs on quantum physics and “origin myths” we know she’s merely dodging her real issues, so the tension dissipates.

Director Lola B. Pierson shows a solid feel for blocking and body language, both of which are crucial in making sense of these characters. She has also picked strong actors for the two women’s roles.

Beth Hylton played the lead in The Heidi Chronicles last season and brings Tetherly a similar mix of self-doubt and confidence. Thais Menendez breezes through all of Nina’s loopy free-associating while making her sound spontaneous and reasonable, if not always rational.

The play places a lot of demand on lighting cues to snap characters in and out of daydreams and fantasy episodes. Lighting Designer Sarah Tundermann brings them all off without a stumble.

Scenic Designer Daniel Ettinger’s suburban living room set and Sound Designer Sarah O’Halloran’s evocative effects and audio snippets also help realize the playwright’s vision.

This is another intriguing entry in the roster of new works at Rep Stage. While the drama does not necessarily build to the intended punch, there’s more than enough food for thought in this world premiere offering.

Running Time: About 90 minutes with no intermission.

Things That Are Round plays at Rep Stage through November 18, 2018, in the Studio 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 go online.

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