It's the effortless manner with which she conveys Harper's contradictions that makes McMann so spectacular. In the opening scene, when Harper is begging her boss (Jordan Lage) for a few days off to travel out of town to visit her dying father, you witness her slow transformation from submissive to strong. Beginning stiff, as if she's afraid of her own body, the disquieting answer she's given — that she'll be fired if she dares to leave — causes her to collapse inside and refashion herself as someone more in tune with her own needs and desires. Though she leaves the office externally deflated, there's no doubt she's attained a kind of freedom she's never known before.
She exercises this in the scenes that follow, first in an ostensibly random encounter with a boy on the street (Stephen Tyrone Williams) who convinces her a worthy fire might be burning beneath her ice-choked façade; then at home, where she chafes against the forced conformity of her husband Seth (Gareth Saxe) while trying to instill some of the same in their daughter Sarah (Madeleine Martin). She's strengthening now, practicing on the minor battles so she'll be better poised to win the bigger ones. Those follow in short order, when she flies off to visit her father and has a series of increasingly intense encounters with the on-call nurse at the hospital (Mahira Kakkar), a drunkenly amorous young man in a bar (Peter Scanavino), and a married man whose personal ad Harper answers (Christopher Innvar) that challenge what Harper is willing to say and do when no one she knows is watching.
Throughout each of these exchanges, McCann becomes more adventurous, revealing each time a different vital part of Harper's psyche. Grief and desperation, arousal and rage, and regret and sensuality slowly mount and mix until they have fashioned a new personality that's completely unlike the broken woman we saw at first, yet could not exist without her. As this happens, McCann seems to glow more and more, as if Harper under her stead is not merely uncovering the secrets to surviving in a difficult world but is also unlocking the unexplored truths of the universe itself. This pays off handsomely when Harper returns home to face the people she left behind, but throughout McCann's blending of the ordinary and the extraordinary is a magnetic reminder of the heights this too-often-unsung actress is capable of reaching.
She can, alas, do only so much with the trite, well-worn concept Stephens has given her. Following a structure unsettlingly similar to Bluebird, another Stephens play that Atlantic presented last year (with McCann superb in a supporting role), Harper Regan presents itself as an iffy quasi–La Ronde work that too often mistakes breadth for depth. Although we learn a lot about how this repressed woman comes to understand who and why she is, the accumulative effect occurs only in McCann's performance and not anything that surrounds her. Most of the rest of the evening is shallow and predictable, lacking big ideas or even a vague originality of plotting, that even with the fascinating character study at its core it's barely capable of standing upright for the whole of its more-than-two-hour running time.
Particularly flaccid is the second act, in which Harper visits her estranged mother (Mary Beth Peil) and her new husband (John Sharian) and unleashes her newfound independence on them, before returning home to her own family and doing more or less the same thing. But in devoting so much time to Harper, Stephens makes it impossible for these supposedly important people in her life to have the impact they're supposed to. It might be part of the point that the earlier Harper sees everyone as an equal obstacle to her liberation, but that approach does not pay worthwhile dramatic dividends when we're suddenly intended to care about them later on.
Director Gene Taylor Upchurch maintains high standards of staging throughout, keeping the pace up and the action fluid from locale to locale (Jeff Croiter's lights help quite a bit, though as does Rachel Hauck's useful if unattractively formless set). And the other actors are roundly solid themselves, with Scanavino and Innvar striking the most piercing notes as the two remote men who get the farthest under Harper's skin. But if they all do prevent Harper Regan from ever being boring, they're never able to elevate it beyond a stream-of-consciousness ramble.
McCann, however, is, and never passes up an opportunity to do just that. She seizes upon the myriad disparate scenes and compresses them into a single straight-ahead narrative that guides Harper from societal pawn to individual power broker, all the while acquiring and burnishing a triumphal sheen. McCann has created an irresistible (and irreplaceable) portrait of a woman who's in the process of creating herself. This means that Stephens has provided at least some of the raw material necessary for brilliance. If only he'd provided enough for everything else to be as painfully, transcendently real.