Having given Old Globe audiences the silly production, in the stylish form of the pre-Broadway offering of A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, artistic director Barry Edelstein has counterbalanced that silliness with three socially conscious plays featuring characters who typically do not populate Globe audiences. He claims in a program essay that these three plays represent the direction that playwriting is going currently. Last fall's The Few featured truckers, and the upcoming Water by the Spoonful focuses on a veteran of the Iraq war. The Globe's current production, Laura Marks' Bethany, deals with homelessness, particularly among women.
Crystal (Jennifer Ferrin) is a young mother and automobile salesperson who has lost her home (and her daughter, to the local social welfare agency) as the new car market has left her without sufficient income. Finding a position at a Saturn dealership in the exurbs and not wanting her supervisors to know that she is homeless, she finds a recently foreclosed property and squats in it. The only problem is that a young man named Gary (Carlo Albán) has already taken over the bedroom. Gary has political delusions, but he seems harmless enough.
Crystal sets out to make enough money to stabilize her life, get her daughter back from social services, and find a permanent place to live. The steps involved seem difficult but not impossible. In the process, Crystal meets up with Charlie (James Shanklin), a self-styled motivational speaker and guru who is interested in buying the top of the line Saturn sports car. He's also, as it turns out, interested in Crystal.
As you might imagine, Crystal's path to income self-sufficiency is not a smooth one. Charlie, upon whose commission her plan turns, is not as flush as he portrays himself to be. And, while both of the male characters are pigs, each in his own way, so are some of the female characters. Crystal herself is not immune to pigdom, though Ms. Marks encourages the audience to root for her throughout.
Bethany might have been a moral tale and as such it would have been a familiar one. Crystal makes a series of ethically questionable choices, starting with breaking into the house in which she's squatting, and at every turn her moral compass becomes progressively skewed. But, Ms. Marks seems to be a moral nihilist, spreading the message that everyone's a taker and the only way to succeed is to become a taker, too. It's easy to laugh at such advice when coming from Charlie, whose insights on life, love, and money seem to be lifted directly from "The Secret." But, it's harder to laugh when the heroine turns out to have bought into the same philosophy.
That said, the Globe has mounted a visually creative production with actors who do their best to inhabit their characters, under insightful direction from Gaye Taylor Upchurch. A couple of them, local performers DeAnna Driscoll and Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson, aren't given much to work with as the sales supervisor at the dealership and the social services inspector, but they find a moral weariness in these put-upon types that is refreshing. Mr. Albán provides much-needed humor in playing his off-the-wall character, and Amanda Naughton does a nice turn as a woman who knows the score.
Ms. Ferris and Mr. Shanklin are both featured in the television series "Hell on Wheels," and the fact that they have experience acting with each other probably benefits this production. Each seems to have a good sense of what the other is doing as an actor, without making their joint moves seem calculated. There is a creepiness to their relationship that is truly chilling. Audiences, however, may yearn for a return to the lavish and silly send-ups of wealth before this 100-minute, no-intermission muted polemic comes to a close.
As is often the case at the Globe, the production values are first rate, in particular Lauren Helpern's creative set that shifts easily among the various locales to which the play takes us. Sarah J. Holden's costumes and Japhy Weideman's lighting design fit well with the concept, and Leon Rothenberg's original music and sometimes deliberately intrusive sound design sets the tone for the play's horrific climax.
Mr. Edelstein is right in his assessment: Ms. Marks' voice does represent a high quality version of what I'm seeing in contemporary playwriting. I'd really like to root for someone who makes better choices, though.
The Old Globe presents Bethany, by Laura Marks. Directed by Gaye Taylor Upchurch with scenic design by Lauren Helpern, costume design by Sarah J. Holden, lighting design by Japhy Weideman, and original music and sound design by Leon Rothenberg. Cast members include Carlo Albán, DeAnna Driscoll, Jennifer Ferrin, Amanda Naughton, James Shanklin, and Sylvia M'Lafi Thompson.
Through February 23, 2014, in the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre. Tickets are available by calling the box office at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623] or online at www.oldglobe.org.