Fiction writers (and playwrights) are taught to construct a story that has a protagonist who wants something, is dissuaded by forces around her and ultimately either succeeds at getting what she wants or does not. In this case, the “want” is getting a creative dramatics class to count to ten. That provides a beautifully simple structure for a lushly complex and entertaining play.
Circle Mirror Transformation by Annie Baker, presented at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, is a series of short scenes that dramatize the course of a “dramatic play” class at a community center in a small town. The class is taught by Marty (Doree Du Toit), a classic new-age baby boomer, who has apparently wrangled her husband, James (Kurt Schweickhardt) into joining, as well. It’s a second marriage, struggling with their barely recognized baggage, and sagging under its weight. The class is therapeutic for Marty, who believes she is providing the same benefit for the other participants: Schulz (Dan Hopman) a young and recently-divorced carpenter with not much going for him; Theresa (Jessica Lind Peterson), a wannabe actress trying to heal, but barely moving on from the relationship with her abusive boyfriend; and Lauren (Tara Borman), a 16-year-old girl escaping her parent’s embattled house, whose dream is to play Maria in West Side Story, which illustrates how much she doesn’t want to be who she is, and how much she demands of herself.
Lest you think this all sounds heavy and depressing, I can assure you that it’s not. It’s just life. Better yet, Baker’s “take” on all this is often very funny in that wonderfully incisive way that humor gets at life’s great questions: Who am I, really? What should I be doing with my life? What do I want and need?
Du Toit as Marty skillfully avoids giving away too much too soon, allowing the “back story” to unfold with excruciating care and giving us an oh-so-satisfying climactic moment. You may or may not see this one coming, but you will believe her completely. Schweickhardt plays James’ violent undercurrent with subtlety. It detracts from their marital denouement, I think, but it works powerfully well in his scene with Theresa. Peterson’s tiny gestures and facial expressions are telling a story all their own – in this scene and throughout. Lauren, the youngster of the group could come off as the stereotypical sullen teenager through much of the play, given the way the part is written, but as played by Borman, she’s clearly her own person; we just aren’t allowed to know who that is until closer to its end.
Perhaps what’s most distinctive in this play is it’s realistic dialog, characterized by “um’s” and “likes,” starts and stops, misplaced pauses and the sometimes inappropriate responses in our everyday conversations. Since the interpretation is so consistent, I willingly give Andy Frye’s direction credit for this sensitive attention to the rhythm of the language.
The only trip-up (and this is the fault of the play, not this production) is the ending. It’s a difficult play to provide the audience real satisfaction without slipping into cliché. I would have preferred a resolution of the simple premise on which the plot is structured. And nothing more. The last scene felt like the obligatory epilogue in a big musical.
However, that’s not enough to stay away. Not at all! And if you haven’t ventured north to Osseo, I encourage you to do so. They have a little jewel of a theater up there and they’re doing very good work. The play runs through February 24.