Also see Susan's review of Macbeth
No one can really know anyone else, and trying to reach across ethnic divides is fraught with problems. That seems to be the basic insight of Stunning, the engaging new play now at Washington's Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. Playwright David Adjmi, a native of the Syrian Jewish community of Brooklyn, provides a look into a sheltered world where girls in their early teens marry much older men and settle down to lives of comfort, constant support and many children – and what can happen in the enclave when an outsider upsets the balance.
Lily (Laura Heisler) is a gum-chewing, chatty 16-year-old girl who dropped out of high school to marry Ike (Michael Gabriel Goodfriend), an ambitious clothing manufacturer roughly twice her age. As she prepares to oversee her large new house and begin producing the 10 children Ike wants, Lily meets Blanche (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), her live-in maid. The questioning of surfaces begins immediately: Lily is not comfortable around African-Americans and had expected that her maid, like her mother's, would be Puerto Rican; Blanche thinks Lily is Middle Eastern rather than Jewish, not understanding that it's possible for one person to be both.
The play, which includes moments of both humor and horror, unfolds the lives of the two women as Daniel Conway's set gradually reveals more and more levels: opaque, transparent and mirrored. Lily is Ike's "little girl," wheedling for privileges like her own credit card, and at first she sees Blanche as a substitute for the housekeepers who coddled her as a child. Blanche, on the other hand, doesn't fit into easy categories, enjoying classical music rather than the hip-hop Ike assumes she must prefer, and reading esoteric books of philosophy and semiotics.
Director Anne Kauffman oversees the actors with a light touch, keeping the laughs realistic and minimizing the melodrama. Heisler succeeds in making Lily believable, with her blind spots and little entitlements, and Bernstine shows her character's depths with great subtlety.
Adjmi goes a little heavy on the symbolism throughout the play, especially the image of whiteness and the blank slate. Lily knows little about life, and her name suggests a famously white flower; the name Blanche means white in French; the house is a showplace of white walls and white upholstery, and – most obviously – Lily keeps whitewash in each room for Blanche to touch up any flaws in the surface. Obviously, something is going to disturb that perfect façade.
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company