At the Kitchen Theatre through March 17

Catherine Trieschmann's Crooked, the latest Kitchen Theatre production, feels like a Lifetime movie that scene by inexorable scene turns into something achingly moving by Henrik Ibsen. And this is a good thing, a very good thing.

Fourteen-year-old Laney Waters (Molly Stoller) has a muscle condition that causes her to move around the stage like Lon Chaney moved through Notre Dame. Her mother, 30-something Elise (Erin Jerozal), has given up a career in social work to move back into her late parents's home in Oxford, Miss. Sixteen-year-old Maribel Purdy (Ally Poole), an evangelical minister's daughter has, like Laney, just entered the local school system after being home-schooled (badly) by her mother. When it is spelled out like this, you can see both the Lifetime channel possibilities for uplift and the Scandinavian potential for tragedy. Trieschmann's talent is to steadily darken the mood, and director Rachel Lampert's gifts to her audience include keeping her actors's behavior realistic, so that you are not distracted by gathering dread, and managing the tone of the production so you are left feeling a mixture of sadness at the contradictions inherent in human nature and sincere hope for the possibility of happiness in spite of these frailties.

In the first three scenes you are introduced to the dynamics between Elise and Laney, Maribel and Laney, and then to the dynamic among all three of them. Elise is a secular humanist somewhat burnt out by the empathetic requirements of a career as a social worker. Maribel is a evangelical Christian with the native intelligence to begin seeing through the literal nature of her parents's faith, but the spiritual purity to continue to see value in the teachings of Jesus. Laney spins like an iron filing caught between these two opposed magnetic fields, drawn first to one and then the other.

Poole's portrayal of Maribel is a tour de force performance. Trieschmann has given her the best lines in the play, perhaps because she is an innocent. Maribel asks – usually without preamble – blunt questions about hot topics like religion and sex. Poole's delivery is flat or includes quite stylized inflection (especially when the topic is religion), which first of all makes her readings very funny, but also reveals her intelligence. Free of the medieval blinkeredness of her own home, she is gobbling up and processing information gathered from Elise and Laney at an impressive rate.

In a late scene, during which Maribel repeatedly attempts to explain to Laney the role of Satan in our responses to our own sinning, she unexpectedly breaks ranks from the literal evangelical camp: “Satan is a metaphor for the harm that we do to God, and to each other.” Lampert was likely responsible for telling her to pause before she says this and glance down at the notebook filled with Laney's “fiction,” but only Poole deserves credit for the timing and naturalness with which she brings this off.

Jerozal has to portray a mother who makes the clear mistake of confiding too extensively in her teenage daughter and still come off as seeming intelligent and sympathetic. She brings this off by always seeming a little sad and disappointed in herself. This very much leavens her character's cultural arrogance. When she makes distasteful pronouncements to Laney about Maribel, Trieishmann has her repeat some of the same words she has already used to describe her former clients, making it clear that she is a burnt-out case speaking in anger and emotional exhaustion, and not a prejudiced jerk.

Stoller has the most difficult role. Caught between two allegiances, in the process of trying to become herself, Laney breaks confidences with both Maribel and Elise. Laney must be both physically attractive and repulsive; both a liar and a sincere seeker; and both highly intelligent and stupidly naïve. Stoller succeeds on all counts.

She does not overdo the physical deformity, but she never lets you forget that Laney is odd looking. Her readings of Laney's motor-mouth lines are almost frighteningly dead-on, as if she has recently spent a lot of time eavesdropping in a high school cafeteria. Most importantly, Stoller leaves you inclined to forgive Laney (eventually) for the monstrous things she says.

Tyler Perry's most powerful statement in his set design is the gigantic picture frame that hangs a slight angle in front of a screen that changes color to reflect the ambient mood. Lisa Boquist clothes the cast in contemporary fashions that downplay the sexuality of the three women, perhaps to make you listen harder when they talk about sex.

Crooked is at the Kitchen Theatre through March 17. See www. for a performance schedule and to buy tickets online, or call the Ticket Center at 272-0403.

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