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In The Wake

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

In The Wake
Marin Ireland and Jenny Bacon.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Judgmental is as judgmental does in In the Wake, Lisa Kron’s not-so-sweeping sideswipe at blind spots both personal and political, which just opened at The Public Theater. In it, an energetic, almost obsessive-compulsive activist named Ellen rails repeatedly against what she perceives as the horrors perpetrated by the George W. Bush administration, all the while unable to see the havoc she consistently wreaks around herself. And over half a decade, from Thanksgiving during the hotly disputed 2000 presidential election to mid 2005, she struggles to address and especially avoid seeing how her actions and beliefs can make her a spiritual cousin to the man she despises more than any other.

Well, okay, in fairness, neither Ellen nor Kron ever explicitly makes this leap. Over a series of quavering scenes, which Leigh Silverman has variously directed as both bathroom-sink realism and dreamlike disconnectedness, we see how both playwright and subject skirt the obvious (and likely) unpleasant conclusion of Ellen's travails. That doesn't exactly become its own kind of myopia, but rather a focal point that's primed for exploring the connections between our intimate lives and the world at large — although that never extensively happens. At the very least, the play doesn't become the specific brand of flat-footed polemic it wants to convince you it is, and this political season that's an accomplishment in itself.

Unlike Well, Kron's own incisive and exciting theatrical look at health and family, which played The Public in 2004 and Broadway (briefly) in 2006, In the Wake lacks a firm emotional component at its center. It's not starving for opportunities, however. Ellen (Marin Ireland) lives with Danny (Michael Chernus), but soon becomes torn between him and Amy (Jenny Bacon), the sister of a school friend whom she meets again and unexpectedly falls for. (Ellen had had two previous bi experiences, neither leading anywhere permanent.) Meanwhile, she's also tussling with Danny's sister, Kayla (Susan Pourfar), and her wife, Laurie (Danielle Skraastad), who want a life and political opinions that don't always mesh with Ellen's.

It's there that we see what the play is trying to embrace, but can't completely get its arms around. Though of course all the characters are unabashedly liberal, Kayla and Laurie want the freedom to disapprove of Al Gore as a presidential alternative, and retain the right to experience fear in the weeks following the September 11 attacks, and not have their anguish minimized. Even when Ellen meets a 16-year-old girl, Tessa (Miriam F. Glover), with Republican leanings, she does everything within her power to convert her. She cannot and will not accept anything that strays from her precepts of right and wrong, however questionably evolved they may be. (And, given how long Ellen juggles Danny and Amy, they're still free-form at best.)

But there's little in the way of genuine soul-searching, at least when things are initially unfolding (the action is bookended by monologues, set in the ostensible but unrecognizable present, in which Ellen reconsiders her action), and even less in the way of proactive change or even self-awareness, either of which might make Ellen more endearing. As it is, we never love her more than when she's squaring off against Judy (Deirdre O'Connell), an aid worker and outsider whose own views make Ellen's sound like Sarah Palin's. This immovable object only delights when it meets an unstoppable force, and there are very few of those here — Kron prefers to let Ellen air at length her pungent views about issues as diverse as the Supreme Court (bad), the war in Iraq (bad), and George W. Bush (need you ask?).

There's nothing innately wrong with this, but it's a lot of reinforcement for the relatively undeveloped matter of Ellen being unable to detect in herself what she never fails to notice in others, something that should be a jumping-off place and not a final destination. With little variation and less action in the dramatic outlay (the tensest, most human moment is a surprise scene in which Ellen breaks down over losing her keys), it's only Ireland's delightful turn as Ellen that keeps you interested in what happens. As in her sparkling performance in Neil LaBute's reasons to be pretty, she swings between fierce control and manic abandon with absolutely no sense of guile — you instantly accept her as a woman who's too all over the place to fully understand herself, let alone others, so you love her for that reason.

Bacon is also excellent as Amy, putting an intellectual spin on a woman whose heart (giving) and job (moviemaking) are all about eliciting feelings devoid of overanalysis. With the exceptions of Chernus and O'Connell, who give the same finely polished performances in this play they tend to give in every other in which they appear, the other performers are more detached from their characters than tangled up in them. There's something a little too winking about Glover's take on being an ideological outsider, and Pourfar and Skraastad don't unlock much depth in Kayla and Laurie, who are all about showing Ellen that life is rarely as black and white as she wants to paint it.

Kron knows that shades of gray in fact exist in the world — she just doesn't want to dwell on them. Yet it's those rare moments when Ellen must face her own shortcomings that this play comes closest to saying something rather than merely anything. Ellen's problem may be that she doesn't know when to shut up, and so is never aware the serious damage her words may inflict. In the Wake doesn't do any harm by refusing to tell us what we most need to hear about where to draw the lines in our lives, but it's also not much of a salve for the open sores we're already waiting to heal.


In The Wake
Through Novembeer 21
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current performance schedule at www.publictheater.org