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In 1988, I was directing an original play about Jack the Ripper called “Carved in the Fog.” Well do I remember my two actors lying on the floor of my apartment staring at the ceiling and doing sense memory exercises designed to enhance the reality of their characterizations.
That’s why I had to snicker in recognition when Theater for the New South’s current production, “Circle Mirror Transformation,” opened with a scene of people in an acting class lying on the floor staring at the ceiling.
Pretty much anyone who’s been involved in theatre for any amount of time has done similar exercises and games, and pretty much everyone has been inclined to question their efficacy at times, as the youngest member of this group eventually does.
Is it theatre or is it therapy? For some people, it’s both, and that’s the premise of Annie Baker’s Obie Award-winning play, which is both funny and moving.
The five people involved (a teacher and four students, one of whom is her long-suffering husband) live in Vermont and each one is in this class for a specific reason, which likely isn’t, as Baker shows us, why they thought they were there.
Marty, the instructor, is energetic and optimistic-against-all-odds in the way that only theatre people can be. (You picture the Off-Broadway audience sighing in sympathy when she has to gently harass one class member for payment, and obviously her husband is there to pad out a class that has small enrollment.)
James, the husband, seems to be an all-round good guy, gamely supporting his wife, but it’s clear almost from the very beginning that he’s harboring a few grudges and not all is as it seems.
Student Theresa is effervescent, throws herself into everything and has professional training. Lauren is a withdrawn teenager, perpetually checking her phone. And Schultz is a middle-aged man who clearly seems out of place. Did he take the class to meet women? If so, he’s in luck—or maybe not.
As is the usual custom for TNS, the play is presented not in a theatre, but in a “found space;” in this case, the South Chattanooga Rec Center in St. Elmo. Director Grace Holtz was therefore given some strengths and weaknesses in staging. While the authenticity of a space that really is a rec center likely very similar to the one portrayed in the script is solid, the lack of multiple entrances and exits, and more specifically, the lack of lighting other than “lights up, lights down” affects pacing, and was particularly noticeable at the very end of the play, when the audience really needs to know we have “transitioned” to the present. (Having directed in similar spaces I could not be more sympathetic.)
Her cast, however, does her proud. Nina Jones perfectly captures the slightly desperate upbeatness of Marty, which finally begins to crack. As James, John Hammons lets us know there is something wrong, something off; a subtle and effective performance. Victoria Jocsing has the toughest role as Lauren, because it is very hard to play bored without being boring. But as the play progresses and Lauren engages with the other workshop participants, she comes alive. In the play’s first stages, Marcia Parks shines as Theresa, the sometimes-actress who’s obviously fleeing from a life that she hasn’t come to terms with. Theresa is playing a wonderful, wacky gal and Parks lets us see this beautifully. But playwright Baker underwrites this character in the final stages of the play and Theresa’s story arc is not fully realized—which may be deliberate but leaves the viewer hanging. I loved Dan Buck as the much-more-complex-than-he-looks Schultz. Some wonderful work from Buck as Schultz hopes, crashes, seethes—and survives.
Theatre folks are fond of talking about “truth” in their craft. “Circle Mirror Transformation” explores how dangerous, and freeing, the truth can actually be.
“Circle Mirror Transformation,” 7:30 p.m. Nov. 14-17, South Chattanooga Rec Center, 1151 W. 40th St. Reservations: brownpapertickets.com/event/500621. More info: facebook.com/theaterforthenewsouth