First impressions mislead in this quirky, dark drama
|Redtwist Theatre presents|
Review by Joy Campbell
We’ve all heard that appearances can be deceiving. In Bruce Norris’s Purple Heart, even the appearance of appearances is deceiving.
Carla (KC Karen Hill) is a war widow whose husband, Lars, was killed three months ago. She lives with her twelve-year-old son, Thor (Nicky Roget-King), an odd, foul-mouthed, contrary kid who enjoys making people uncomfortable. Mother-in-law Grace (Kathleen Ruhl) has taken up residence in the house, and is an endless source of preachy opinions, not least about Carla’s drinking habits and mysterious illness. Into the chaos arrives Purdy, a mysterious stranger whose Army uniform leads Carla to assume he knew her husband.
As the play unfolds, the characters present somewhat as stereotypes: Carla is the shattered alcoholic widow; Thor is the brilliant but quirky product of a dysfunctional home; Grace is the overbearing mother-in-law; and Purdy is the enamored, gentle soul who wants to rescue Carla from the wreckage of her situation. As the play progresses, however, we slowly realize that assumptions can be very wrong, and the attentive ear will pick up on the subtle comments that sound a minor note that all is not as it seems. You find yourself wondering whether you should be reading so much into so little, or whether you’ve just had a glimpse into deeper characters. Norris’s script, with its keen ear for dialogue, briskly takes you along a dysfunctional family’s chaotic interactions and then you realize that – hey, that comment was weird.
The play is billed as a dark comedy, but while there are certainly funny moments, it’s too heavy overall to wear that badge. This may have to do with the performances as much as the subject matter. As Claire, Hill is incredibly realistic and does a superb job, but comes across as a bit too strong – while we have no doubt she is experiencing everything she is, why she would tolerate her mother-in-law’s annoying interference is hard to understand. In all fairness, given the low-key style of the other cast members, it does fall to her to keep the emotional temperature high; had she more to work off from Roget-King and Ruhl, more dynamic interactions might have ensued. As Thor, Roget-King employs a casual, offhand delivery that is perhaps designed to show precocity, but combined with the rapidity with which he delivers his lines and the lack of emotional range, starts to feel like an actor waiting for his cue line to deliver his own. Kathleen Ruhl’s Grace is played for realism: she’s a sober, churchgoing, passive-aggressive woman who’s not stingy with opinions and advice. Had she been played as a more flighty, animated, less self-aware woman, she might have added some humor and lightness, but she’s instead played seriously, which makes her a bit of a dull know-it-all who keeps hitting Hill’s serves into the net. Ruhl and Hill also seem to have some problem with lines, although this is covered well. Sanderson’s Purdy is the most interesting of all: as played, he’s gentle, soft-spoken, direct, and almost Asperger-ish, yet also the most disquieting. When he’s onstage, his presence is enthralling.
It’s hard to go into any detail without spoilers, so I’ll just say that the script is very good and McDermott’s directing, likewise; the performances are overall fairly solid, but the room to make Thor and Grace more interesting than they presently are makes this play less likeable than it should be. Still, you may find the surprising plot twists and character revelations worth the ride.
Purple Heart continues through January 27th at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25-$30, and are available by phone (773-728-7529) or online through their website (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at Redtwist.org. (Running time: 2 hours, includes an intermission)
Photos by Jan Ellen Graves
behind the scenes
Jimmy McDermott (director); Christopher Burpee (lighting); Christopher Kriz (sound designer); Dennis Mae (scenic designer); Rachel S. Parent (costumes); Charles Bonilla (box-office manager); Sarah Burnham (production manager); Michael Colucci (co-producer); Jan-Ellen Graves (co-producer, design and marketing, photos); Aaron Henrickson (assistant director); Garvin Jellison (master electrician); Allison Queen (stage manager); Olivia Leah Baker (assistant stage manager); Kevin McDonald (dramaturg); Chris Rickett (fight choreography); Mary Reynard (vocal coach); Jeff Shields (props design); Frank R. Sjodin (tech director)