Chair and chair alike

Pub date December 27, 2007
WriterRobert Avila
SectionArts & CultureSectionTheater

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What we owe one another, whether family, friends, fellow human beings, or just fellow creatures — and how we define we in the first place — is a perennial question of both politics and art. In Adam Bock’s tightly drawn, funny, and engaging new play about political commitment, this sense of communion — a frisson of recognition of the interconnectedness of our lives — works neatly as both theme and theatrical strategy as a kindhearted and intelligent middle-aged woman, perched in comfortable middle-class seclusion atop her new Shaker chair, straddles two long-standing relationships that force her to weigh her responsibility to public and private suffering.

Marion (the wonderfully sympathetic Frances Lee McCain) couldn’t be happier with her recent acquisition: a stylish if somewhat austere straight-backed wooden chair in imitation of a Shaker original, which makes up what it lacks in comfort with its thrilling built-in legacy of righteous action — a reminder to "get up and do something," she enthuses to sister Dolly (Nancy Shelby). Dolly, by contrast, is curled up in a comfy and well-worn armchair, the only other significant furnishing in scenic designer James Faerron’s elegantly focused wood-lined living room (exquisitely lit through varying moods by Heather Basarab). A hog for attention and wallowing in self-pity, the comically pathetic Dolly remains very much the aging little girl her name suggests, not only unmoved by the Shaker chair’s greater associations but completely oblivious to anything outside the crass little domestic drama she shares with philandering husband Frank (Will Marchetti).

Marion’s childhood friend Jean (Scarlett Hepworth), meanwhile, an environmental and animal rights activist, scoffs openly at Dolly and her self-absorbed, contented victimhood, a role Jean dismisses as "stupid" (a word that gets thrown around a lot in a work whose vastly different priorities call up a kind of playground defensiveness in their holders). She has shown up to borrow Marion’s car for an action against a nearby industrial pig farm, which is spilling noxious waste into its surroundings. No doubt inspired by her newfound Shaker spirit, Marion not only lends the car but also agrees to accompany Jean and her much younger associates (sharply played by Andrew Calabrese and Marissa Keltie) on their late-night deed.

Marion’s initial thrill is soon dampened by a sense of betrayal when she discovers the group’s political act of vandalism went much further than she was led to believe it would. Although Jean attempts to justify the measures taken by introducing Marion to a liberated pig (one animal being a palpable miracle, according to Jean, while thousands are only an abstract blur), Marion remains pitched between Dolly’s obsessive private life and Jean’s dangerous radical commitments.

Finally, a violent act compels her to negotiate this gap between the public and the private for herself. It’s then that Marion fully attempts to confront the contradictions between a socially enervating middle-class solipsism and the responsibilities that come with awareness of the world around her.

The extremes represented by Dolly and Jean nonetheless share something in common. For Dolly’s banal romantic plight comes to loosely parallel (in less drastic form) the larger realm of cruelty and oppression against which Jean and her cohorts feel bound to take direct action. Indeed, in a scene in which the caddish Frank expertly turns Dolly from smoldering hurt and resentment back into compliant second-class spouse, the fine cast carefully bleed away the comedy from this one-way negotiation to end on a chilling note of humiliation and underlying violence.

Bock, a former Bay Area and now New York playwright best known locally for the 2002 production of his runaway hit Five Flights and the more recent Typographer’s Dream, has a seemingly effortless knack for unusual and inventive scenarios whose often painful subject matter comes leavened by a keen and warm brand of humor. In this splendid Bay Area premiere, gracefully directed by Tracy Ward and coproduced by the Shotgun Players and the Encore Theatre Company (both early and steadfast supporters of his work), Bock has fashioned a theatrical experience as well honed, poised, and resonant as the eponymous piece of furniture at its center. *


Through Jan. 27

Fri.–Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m.; $20–$30

Ashby Stage

1901 Ashby, Berk.

(510) 841-6500, ext. 302