If anyone doubted that Chekhov could be funny and tragic at the same time, keep your eyes on Marianna Bassham in the opening scene-within-a-scene of “The Seagull” and the actress’s hilarious, out of her mind, dazed and confused, wounded deer-in-the-headlights mashup of her character Nina’s dialogue before knocking over sets and collapsing on the floor. Suddenly, we stop laughing and the real fun begins with an extraordinarily engrossing 2 1/2 hours of theater– SpeakEasy’s latest– the Boston premiere of PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS. It doesn’t hurt that Marianna Bassham and this wondrous cast of Boston luminaries are nothing short of miraculous: Kadahj Bennett, Adrianne Krstansky, John Kuntz, and Nael Nacer.
Duncan Macmillan’s play riffs on the notion that art is the lie that tells the truth. Then the playwright layers in an actress as protagonist who is lying to herself and everyone around her, and the hall of mirrors this play holds up to life becomes dazzling, confounding, and ultimately affirming.
Bassham’s character is in the throes of a drug and alcohol induced breakdown when she enters rehab for a “tune up.” Remarkably sharp and articulate, “Emma”– though her very name is in question– fights the standard protocol from day one, and as an actress she has infinite technique and a lengthy repertoire at her disposal. She instantly debates the premise of “a higher power” with her seen-it-all-before Doctor and long-suffering Therapist (Adrianne Krstansky in both roles). She rejects, then claims center stage in group therapy (Josephine Moshiri Elwood, Parker Jennings, John Kuntz, Victor Shopov, Shanelle Chloe Villegas, Sharmarke Yusuf) by attempting a dramatic coup after passing off the plot of “Hedda Gabler” as her own tale– until a fellow patient Mark (Nael Nacer) calls her on it; his real story could tear your heart out.
David R. Gammons directs with fleet economy on a simple but malleable set, shaping the people, places and things which trigger Emma, all the while setting these actors free to traverse the shifting planes of the world of the play over time, space, memories and dreams. He’s deeply in command of this material and the rhythms of the play. Some actors play dual and triple roles: Krstansky and John Kuntz will also play Emma’s parents speaking unspeakably bitter truths about their own wounds. Ironically apt tunes about life and death and identity from Peggy Lee, Amy Winehouse, The Zombies…are heard as the arc of the play bends inevitably towards, well, the inevitable as Emma twists in the wind of unacknowledged trauma in search of herself.
It’s breathtaking to watch Bassham climb this mountain of dialogue and never lose her footing. Her Emma employs every possible mechanism– intellectual, verbal, physical– to escape reality and avoid what drugs and alcohol can no longer disguise. The sheer physicality of Bassham’s performance is remarkable as we watch her character in various stages of addiction and withdrawal, in modes comedic and tragic, her facade cracking, pained from the inside out, falling apart in stages. This doesn’t look like a performance; it’s as if an addict has wandered in from real life onto this stage, and we ache for her to see what she herself does not yet see.
Ah, the luxury of sitting in the audience looking on… a respite from our own personal storms. Bassham and company let us understand what theater and group therapy have in common, what all actors and shamans do in a chaotic universe where control is an illusion: letting go and being as true in the moment as possible in front of a group of strangers. Macmillan’s play is the perfect antidote for these selfie-saturated times, when fake news is the norm, role-playing is a way of life, and we find ourselves looking at ourselves and each other in a metaverse of alternative identities.
The final moments of the play are a font of grace in a random universe where we find Bassham/Emma beaming with honest gratitude, front and center, after an audition before an unseen director and us, a wrapt audience, saying, ” ‘ Thank you for seeing me.‘ (Another actress… begins.) ‘Why’ (Blackout.)”
Indeed. What more is there?
Do not miss PEOPLE, PLACES & THINGS presented by SpeakEasy Stage Company at the Calderwood Pavilion through March 5!