REVIEW: Toronto, Mississippi (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

      
  

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

  
  

Eve Rydberg and Daniel Behrendt - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

   
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
   
Toronto, Mississippi
   
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
at
Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $13-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Kitchen sink dramas often spell death for real theatricality. However raw or radical they were post-WWII, overplayed working-class melodramas, set in the same old, worn out living rooms, give audiences little more than rehashed and trite explorations of troubled lives truncated by cramped, dreary social and economic conditions. I had my worries about Toronto, Mississippi, which is enjoying its Midwest premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre under the direction of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Certainly its set design (William Anderson) has “Momma-on-the-couch-play” written all over it. But Garcia has honed his cast to make the audience see the particular beauty of Joan MacLeod’s mercurial script and also what is thoroughly special about these characters.

Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn in Toronto Mississippi - Mary-Arrchie TheatreTo that end, no young actor could be better cast to take on the role of a mentally handicapped teenage girl than Eve Rydberg. She plays18-year old Jhana, a young woman roiled by adolescent, hormonal drives for independence and sexual exploration, but who still needs daily training to remember her home address and how to dial 911 in the case of emergency. Jhana’s developmental challenges require a tight leash and perpetual watchfulness over her exceptionally vulnerable future. Her mother, Maddie (Laura Sturm), seems quite used to playing hardball with Jhana, whether she’s firmly and patiently correcting her inappropriate emotional outbursts or confronting her about her crappy work performance at “The Workshop,” a place that employs the developmentally challenged.

Rydberg and Sturm make a beautifully realistic mother-daughter team. Sturm definitely sculpts Maddie’s demeanor and body language to reflect the wear and strain of constant tending to Jhana’s needs. But one equally feels secure in the presence of Sturm’s performance. The way she strides across the living room, treating the difficulties of raising a specially challenged daughter like an everyday thing, evokes Maddie’s inner toughness and resiliency in the face Sisyphean duty.

Yet the play clearly belongs to Jhana. She is not this family’s burden, but its star. Classed vaguely by medical experts as having “soft autism,” Jhana’s way of perceiving and communicating with the world could only be defined as fragmented pastiche. The loved ones around her must interpret her jumbled words and gestures intuitively to understand her. Lucky for the audience, Jhana’s emotions are always on the surface. She’s incapable of hiding them away, either out of deception or self-deception. Watching Rydberg nail every emotional moment and gesture in Jhana’s journey is truly the overriding delight of this production.

That leaves the men of the play who, besides being flawed with their own particular obsessions and weaknesses, get an uneven interpretation from the actors. Bill (Daniel Behrendt) is the struggling and frustrated poet who boards at Maddie’s house. Behrendt delivers a bountifully sympathetic performance through Bill’s generous, funny and empathic relationship with Jhana. Only by increments do we discover Bill’s bitter neuroses over women, at least until the arrival of “the King” awakens them to full ugly glory. King (Luke Renn), Maddie’s ex and Jhana’s dad, is a traveling Elvis impersonator who shows up when it suits him. Clearly a guy who believes in living his legend—even if it is somebody else’s legend—King darkens Maddie’s door once more for a little ex-sex, Eve Rydberg and Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatresome filial adoration from Jhana and a general lifestyle regrouping.

Jhana is not the dysfunctional one as her dysfunctions are excusable because they can be explained away by her disability. But Maddie, King and Bill’s dysfunctions are also understandable. They want to be more than what they are; they want to have a life that meets their dreams; they want what they don’t have, might never have, and that alone leads to lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. Their dreary day-to-day malaise is ours. Yet the actors have to particularize, in exacting detail, each of their character’s individual malaises in order to capture our attention before our eyes glaze over at the sight of another working-class stereotype.

There is really nothing normal about normal. The devil is in the details; the devil is also in MacLeod’s sparsely poetic language. Bill’s definition for poetry is nothing less than MacLeod’s strategy for laying out her dialogue: “Poetry is at its best when no one knows what’s going on.” Rather, the meaning of what’s poetically said can only be intuited from the emotional impact that the actor deduces from subtext. The audience needs to grasp all the subtext of Bill and King’s territorial pissing contests, no matter what poetic depths MacLeod’s script strays into. What’s more, Sturm and and Renn need to take the latent chemistry between Maddie and King and notch it up a skotch. That’s the only way to make the assignation of this otherwise tough and pragmatic lady more realistic.

Since the production can resolve these issues in the course of the run, I urge people to make time for Toronto, Mississippi. MacLeod’s script is not the same old kitchen sink. Rydberg’s performance elevates the play’s message about the unique beauty of every individual’s self-expression to lovingly brilliant heights. Jhana’s small victories make the grey drudgery in her world shrink away. Would that we faced each day with the same perspective.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Daniel Behrendt, Laura Sturm, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Production Personnel

Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Featuring: Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn, & Laura Sturm.
Designers include Bill Anderson (set), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Matt Gawryk (lighting design), Carlo Lorenzo Garcia (sound design), CoCo Ree Lemery (paint charge), Mary Patchell (stage manager)

  
  

Continue reading