Canadian playwright Adam Bock has a lot of history with both Shotgun Players and Encore Theatre Company. Encore's acclaimed 2005 production of Bock's The Typographer's Dream had a successful revival last year at Shotgun's Ashby Stage. Now the two companies team up for another Bock play that premiered in 2005 at the Humana Festival in Louisville, Kentucky.
In The Shaker Chair, a fiftysomething widow with a yen for domestic neatness falls in with a gang of ecoterrorists. Marion has recently bought a Shaker chair, which has started her thinking about the Shaker community's stern work ethic, especially as the chair is so uncomfortable that it immediately makes you want to get up and do something. Even though it's a relatively short play, and a very funny one at that, Bock gives us plenty to chew on in its 75 minutes without intermission.
He does so in part by leaving many of the details vague. The characters have a maddening habit of talking around the important parts — what was said in an e-mail that got Marion's sister Dolly so upset, what exactly they did during a raid on a polluting pig farm — although in such a way that you basically get the picture long before they paint it for you. This Mametian inarticulateness of sentence fragments and cross-talk is hard to pull off, but the cast does so beautifully in this production directed by Tracy Ward.
The acting overall is superb. It would be easy to make Marion into someone who just worries about whether people track mud on her floor (James Faerron's spartan set looks as if she's just moved in) when she needs to wake up to what's going on in the world around her — and certainly that's the way some people talk to her. But Frances Lee McCain makes Marion the strongest, most grounded character in the room. She is far too generous in her view of human nature, but she is also the one who keeps her head while all around her are losing theirs, as shown in the tight-lipped grimace she gets when people look to her for affirmation she is disinclined to give.
Scarlett Hepworth is a bundle of nervous energy as firebrand Jean, and Nancy Shelby is a delightfully flighty foil for her as hopeless romantic Dolly, interrupting the serious business around her with inane tergiversation about her hopeless marriage. Will Marchetti is marvelously infuriating as Dolly's two-timing husband Frank, a smug sonofabitch who turns everything she says around on her to make her seem unreasonable in a way that's both masterfully slick and all too recognizable to anyone who's ever been in that particular kind of bad relationship. Andrew Calabrese wavers amusingly from giddiness to cageyness as activist Tom, but Marissa Keltie's teenage Lou tries to be menacing in a way that just seems pouty.
An uncredited pig also has a trot-on role. It's a brief appearance, but having the pig there at all is a brave move for the rest of the company, less because it might act up (it's a very well-behaved pig — kudos to pig wranglers Jessica Clark and Ray Maldonado and onstage companion Hepworth) than because of the spontaneous exclamations of "Awwww!" from the audience that distract from the action of the play. What a ham.
Heather Basarab's lights and Sara Huddleston's sound design do more than just set the scene, although they capture the ambiance of night and morning beautifully. Certain scenes such as a pig-farm raid are told as much by the visual and sound effects as they are by the characters' confused recap — which in itself is refreshing when so many other plays seem to err on the side of clunky exposition.
Taken as a whole, Marion's journey from the beginning to end of the story feels as tidy and spare as her house. The ending is not necessarily obvious or inevitable, but it seems like the path of least resistance in a narrative sense. By that point, however, the journey has been so delightful that it's hard to begrudge a single step.
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