The Speed Queen: A Fast Paced 85 Minutes of Engrossing Storytelling
You'll likely recognize the essential elements of the story. It is told by Marjorie as she awaits her final walk (or a reprieve) in an Oklahoma jail. As she snorts speed apparently provided by a sympathetic jailer, Marjorie is talking into a recorder, answering questions submitted on cards by an author who is paying her for the rights to her story. The money will provide a little nest egg for her 10-year-old son Gainey. Unlike the B-movie melodramas evoked here, The Speed Queen is a monodrama, and only Marjorie appears corporeally. Thus, it is up to the audience to picture the other squalid players and their victims, the spare black and white settings, the cars speeding down highways to nowhere, the erotic entanglements, and the vicious and bloody criminal behavior of the protagonists. And we do see the story vividly unfold in the camera of our minds courtesy of the richly descriptive, vivid and fast paced adaptation of Stewart O'Nan's novel of the same title by Anne Stockton. In this respect, the play calls to mind the pleasurable boon to the imagination that radio drama once provided. The clear presence here of elements of both B-pictures and old time radio make for a pleasing retro experience.
Marjorie begins by telling us that she met Lamont, her husband and partner in crime, when he drove into a gas station where she was working. It is a love at first sight tale of two junkies whose pleasure together derives from taking hard drugs, hot and heavy fornication and attending car shows. In quick time, Marjorie becomes pregnant. When her newborn arrives, Marjorie has to give up her gig at the gas station. However, she services Lamont's druggie customers from their apartment. Marjorie convincingly asserts that she did not use illegal drugs during her pregnancy. After giving birth, she again gets heavily into the use of drugs. At first, she skims from each packet sold. As her habit increases, she increases prices without telling Lamont in order to cover the costs of drugs diverted for her own use. Arrested for possession after an auto accident, Marjorie is sentenced to a minimum security prison. Here she meets Natalie. Their relationship is both sexual and sisterly. When Natalie is released, and needs a place to stay, she moves in with Lamont and Marjorie. Natalie helps with the drug sales, and, before long, adds Lamont to her sexual menu.
Following the theft of the money which he had borrowed to finance a major drug deal, Lamont is viciously assaulted by the loan sharks, and the trio accompanied by 2-year-old Gainey head off onto Route 66 where they embark on a murderous, bloody and stupidity-laden crime spree, and Marjorie repays Natalie's betrayal.
As adapter, Anne Stockton, has so vividly drawn the off stage characters that I had the passing (albeit ridiculous) thought of reviewing the roles of Lamont and Natalie.
Adaptor Anne Stockton also performs the role of Marjorie under the never static, tightly wound direction of Austin Pendleton. She brings variety, vigor and conviction to her portrayal. Marjorie is the kind of person who is able to act in a stone cold, utterly vicious and horrific manner because her all consuming desire to satisfy her own wants is inextricably entwined with her inability to have any concern or compassion for others. In attempting to humanize Marjorie, Stockton may be a tad too engaging. On the other hand, sad experience has taught the world that monsters can be frightfully engaging. Certainly, Marjorie's horrendous behavior is clear enough here.
The clean, sleek prison office setting is by Jessica Parks. Marjorie's new looking, sharply pressed green prison jumpsuit is uncredited. There is a dialect coach, so I'll assume Stockton's near Southern sounding strong regional accent is accurate.
Marjorie mentions that she acquired the soubriquet The Speed Queen because of her high speed car run from the police along Route 99. Another apparent reason is her heavy, long term usage of the illicit drug known as speed.
Stewart O'Nan, on whose work the play is based, is quoted as saying that Stockton's "captured Marjorie's innocence and insanity." This reviewer cannot see Marjorie as (an) innocent in any sense of the word, and is not clear on her precise mental condition. What I look for in portrayals of people who commit unspeakable, inhumane crimes is an understanding of what causes them (and not others) to deviate from normative behavior. I rarely, if ever, find it. The fault may lie in the eye of this beholder.
Actress and adaptor Anne Stockton may have us traveling in B-movie territory, but she certainly is giving us an entertaining and fast paced ride.
The Speed Queen ran through November 12, 2006 at the New Jersey Repertory Theatre, 179 Broadway, Long Branch, NJ 07740. Box Office: 732-229-3166; online: www.njrep.org.
The Speed Queen adapted by Anne Stockton from the novel by Stewart
O'Nan; directed by Austin Pendleton