A Tree Grows at Ashby Stage 

Plant metaphors are omnipresent in Shotgun Players' latest.

Ostensibly, E. Hunter Spreen's new play, Care of Trees, is actually about ironing out the difficulties in a relationship — the tree is just a symbol. And a fitting one, right? After all, relationships are very much like trees, at least in the sense that they grow, have brambles, blot out other things in your field of vision, and are always perilously close to being chopped down.

But when Spreen and Shotgun Players director Susannah Martin aren't developing the relationship within this play, they spend a lot of time ironing out the difficulties in their metaphor. The tree of the play's title stands in for an "elegant old oak" that's become a sticking point in the marriage of Travis Dekalb (Patrick Russell) and Georgia Swift (Liz Sklar). She's the daughter of a big developer who wants it either cut down or transplanted; he's an environmental lawyer who takes great concern in the care of trees. There are other trees in the script, too, like the "shocking pink" tulip trees of Georgia's childhood, which define a space of innocence. Georgia herself is a bit like a tree in that she's long and brambly, with rooty bare feet and tangled, leafy hair. Then there's the set: A giant tree house designed by Nina Ball, with spiral staircases and rings etched into the harwood floor. The theme just keeps growing.

Having a tree represent a relationship — or rather, the main encumbrance in a relationship — is actually a beautiful thing. Apparently, Spreen's whole idea was to imagine the most insurmountable conflict that a husband and wife could have (hint: it's not really about the environment) and then explore it in magical realist form. There's something looming in the background that's bigger and more powerful than both of them — not a tree, per se, though it's encapsulated in the tree's image. They spend the first half of the play trying to control it. They go to marriage counseling. He calls doctors. She writes papers contending that "There are no permanent structures in nature."

But the intractability of nature is the idea that glues this play together. It is, indeed, a very idea-driven play, and Spreen's emphasis on concepts sometimes obfuscates the humanity of her characters; you can often feel the writer's hand manipulating things. The actors speak in a kind of poetic enjambment that's become common in contemporary playwriting. They blur phrases together and finish each other's sentences, like musicians trading fours or poets trading quatrains. In the first act, it signifies closeness. In the second act, it shows dissolution. In either case, it makes the dialogue intricate and elliptical, but hard to follow. So, too, is the environmental debate introduced in the first act, which doesn't really go anywhere. Perhaps it's just an attempt to make the tree metaphor seem topical.

The best parts happen when Georgia and Travis are allowed to just act out their romance, with no complications. Not only are Russell and Sklar both brilliant actors, they're also easy on the eye — a helpful quality in a play with more than one hot make-out scene. Both are traditionally handsome — Russell brown and sinewy; Sklar doe-eyed and serpentine. There's a naturalness to their movements that alleviates the discomfort of watching two people hook up on stage (which, for whatever reason, feels a lot more voyeuristic than watching a love scene on film). Even their first flirtation, staged at a fund-raiser wine-and-dine, seems unforced. "Oooh, baby sea turtles, they're the cutest," Georgia says, teasing Travis about his métier.

As the play goes on, though, it also seems more labored. A lot of attention goes toward visual elements, like the video projections that condense memories of happier times. Meant to look like home videos, they show looped images of the young couple: Georgia forcing a year-old piece of wedding cake on Travis to celebrate their first anniversary; Travis being chased through the living room; Georgia licking one of those giant missile popsicles. It looks like an attempt to impose normalcy on a marriage that dissolves shortly after the wedding cake is eaten. That's a very useful idea, and the footage — shot by videographer Ian Winters — is alternately nostalgic and haunting. That said, it also detracts from the action — like a character reverie jimmied into the crevices of a scene.

Midway through the second act, it becomes apparent that Spreen is tackling too many issues at once — environmentalism, illness as metaphor, the mind-body connection, the shortcomings of psychoanalysis, sex, romance, language — all within an extremely simple storyline. On top of all that, there's the tree to contend with, but by then it's become distressingly literal. Martin and company telegraph as many messages as possible via an overreliance on audio and visual effects, but as Trees plods on, it still has the feel of a thesis being defended. No wonder that at a certain point, Georgia complains that her thoughts are getting tangled in some kind of thick, viney mass. Spreen could probably empathize.

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