Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Review - How Cissy Grew

How Cissy Grew
by Susan Johnston

directed by Casey Stangl
El Portal - Secondstage
through November 23

The trauma of losing a child, even for a brief time, is devastating for the parents. One blames the other, the injured party is fraught with self-guilt, all in all the resulting personal turmoil can go a long way in ruining a once happy relationship. How Cissy Grew, directed fluidly and cinematically by Casey Stangl, is quite affecting to a point, but somehow never finds its focus. Its throughline zigzags haphazardly, but the play does boast 4 terrific performances.

Playwright Johnston concentrates on a series of scattered memories preceding and following the kidnapping of infant Cecily. Characters are always onstage watching the action as if recalling or re-experiencing certain moments. This is the positive side of the play. The negative is that the pieces of the puzzle remain a puzzlement - and don't tell me that's what the author intended! -and the relationships are only partially developped, which makes it difficult to appreciate or even like the characters. Sure, we sympathize with them, but like them?

Both Butch (James Denton) and Darla (Erin O'Brien) are flawed parents, to say the least. Cissy as a teen is exposed to the drinking and pot smoking and leads quite a permissive sexual life despite parental discontent. Butch, a recovering alcoholic, blames himself for the kidnapping and showers the older Cissy with presents, while Darla becomes over-protective and permissive in her own way. But apart from their individual issues, we never get to see much of their relationship together, except their early meeting, engagement and an occasional disagreement.

The opening scene in the car with each talking nonstop and neither hearing what the other is saying, is at once sad and hilarious. The play could stand more of this realistic humor.

The acting is superb, nonetheless. Both Denton and O'Brien have their finest moments in scenes of solitary brooding or helplessness. Especially noteworthy in the cast is Liz Vital as Cissy. A singular beauty like Charlize Theron, she possesses a total naturalness and physical flexibility onstage that are remarkable. Her complex performance is a revelation. Stewart W. Calhoun is wonderfully dynamic and versatile essaying a few of her boyfriends; Johnston should write more of him into the action.

Overall, the play does not lack potential, but there's an unfinished quality about it. Create more scenes of family interaction, add more humor and hone a cleaner focus; then, it will perhaps be a more pleasant pill to swallow.

3 out of 5 stars


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