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Maggie's Daughters

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Frances Galton wants to work with multiple layers of meaning in her new play, Maggie's Daughters, which opened last night at the Trilogy Theatre. She's created a story about the complex relationships that exist within an Italian-American family, a story about finding one's own purpose in the world, and a story about acceptance of others. The biggest problem with Maggie's Daughters is that Galton had no one focus to draw her ideas together.

She should consider herself fortunate, then, for Christine McGovern. McGovern, in her role as the youngest member of the family, possesses a strength and inner light that give the production a direction not present solely in the script. McGovern's Terry is joyous, full of youth and hope for the future, open to the limitless possibilities but still experiencing great pain and torment in her struggle to break free of the bonds of her childhood.

McGovern's is a highly nuanced performance - anticipatory and frightened, but very real. She's incredibly poignant when she displays her almost childish belief that the only solutions to her problems can be found in her deceased grandmother (the Maggie of the title, played by Maureen Hayes), and when in the second act she takes almost the ultimate step to win her grandmother's eternal love and approval, the scene is heart-rending. But McGovern also must appear buoyant, erotic, or tormented, all with equal adept facility. McGovern is unquestionably a performer to watch - she's ideal for the complicated heroines of Ibsen or Chekhov, and will do as well (if not better) by them.

But her performance proves to be a dual-edged sword; she makes you care so much about Terry's problems and their potential solutions that the rest of the family fades into the background, their issues somehow less important. Whenever the attention is centered on Terry or her relationship with the black-Italian Tony (Andrew Stewart-Jones), the play just works. When we're dealing with the mostly petty squabbling between Terry's mother (Denise Traficanti) and aunt (Elizabeth Gee), or the men in their lives (Paul Campana and Joe Corey), the show has a tendency to slow down, almost screeching to a halt.

Director Jay Michaels deserves a lot of credit for balancing out the proceedings to the degree he has, finding ways to keep the action fluid and vital at nearly every possible moment. (Some though, such as a painfully awkward almost-courtship scene between Gee and an annoyingly monotonic Campana, are beyond even his help.) But with Tom Lee's sets and Niklas Anderson's lights, Michaels is able to create a number of highly distinct locations, some existing in real physical space, some in memory, giving the play precisely what it needs at nearly every moment.

But there are so many moments, and Galton gives so few more than just passing attention. She wants to do so much in so compact a script that only Terry's emerges as well fleshed out. Terry's mother's battle with prejudice or her free-wheeling artist sister could be plays of their own with a bit of expansion, and there are times that Galton devotes so much time to Terry's aunt that she seems ready to burst out as a major character of her own. If this was an episode of a TV show, it would be difficult to say which of these characters would be awarded her own spin-off.

That's what Maggie's Daughters feels like - it doesn't know who or what it's really supposed to be about. The confusion even extends to the curtain call, with Traficanti receiving the last bow, though every step of the way the show seemed to be unquestionably Terry's story. Nonetheless, McGovern is the standout, and through sheer force of will and talent is able to bring everyone else together and make the show almost work. If Galton can take things the rest of the way, Maggie's Daughters could be as meaningful and moving as it already thinks it is.

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American Playwrights Theatre
Maggie's Daughters
Through December 15
Running Time: 2 hours 20 minutes with one intermission
Trilogy Theatre, 341 West 44th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 206-1515