Standing On My Knees
John Olive's play is fairly schizophrenic, even without its mentally ill poetess: the first act is glazed with implied danger for Catherine, newly released from a psychiatric ward (and played by the outstanding Meghan Maguire). She's caught between a pushy publisher (Michelle Hand) and a wonderful guy she thinks she doesn't deserve (Nicolas Pavlos). Our waiting through this slow-developing first half is amply rewarded when the second act shatters a Pandora's box, revealing an impressive narrative structure.
The unique intensity of Ms. Maguire and Ms. Hand (two of the talented founders of the Orange Girls, along with Brooke Edwards) sees us through that first hour. Credit also goes to the easy, haunting direction of Deanna Jent and the frequent humor of the actors and playwright.
The scenes cleverly overlap as Catherine is abruptly thrust into psychiatric sessions (with the pleasantly tenacious Ruth Heyman) just as preceding scenes are still freezing into Bergman-esque dread. In this way, director Jent knocks Ms. Maguire out of her reverie and into the stuffy world of recovery again and again. The rest of the cast conjures schizophrenic voices in a jarring chorus. Later, we get a shocking view inside Catherine's mind as the lights throb, red and white, on her curled-up figure. The cumulative effect is like wandering through the dark on broken glass. Amazing what live theater can do without the benefit of computer generated images.
All of this reminds me of something my ninth grade biology teacher once said: "the more complex a system becomes, the more prone it is to collapse." In act one Catherine's life has become frighteningly complicated by disease, pills and doubts, and she seems perpetually on the brink of another breakdown (like the one that immediately precedes the action of the play). Then, in act two, something surprising happens: the publisher and the boyfriend become the tortured figures instead, dreading their dependence on Catherine's doubtful grasp of reality. Thematically, as this agony changes hands, the second act becomes a "spiegel" (a mirror-image) of the first. It's a perfect cure for any doubts we may have had about the script early on, and a credit to the subtlety of the director and actors.
The great passages of this production swing smoothly on Ms. Maguire's vertiginous performance, leading to a long, ghastly drinking binge and the creepy embrace of madness near the end. Her final, silent pleadings against her demons are as tenderly horrifying as Billie Holiday's suicide-inspiring song, Gloomy Sunday.
Ms. Maguire has said this will be her last performance for some time, as she divides her time between work and raising a two-year-old daughter. For the rest of us two-year-olds it's a sad moment, because this beautiful actress has always carried with her a mountain of spirit and intensity onto the stage. This time she's switched gears, digging a frightening psychological pit instead. And as her fingertips finally emerge from that pit, the audience holds its collective breath well into the final blackout.
Ms. Hand and Mr. Pavlos help by providing some great contrasts to their leading lady: Alice tramples her under a brash stampede and Robert's boyish love only throws her farther into cringing worry. Mr. Pavlos' second-act scene in Catherine's bed is as beautiful as anything you'll to see on stage this year in its quiet simplicity.
And thanks to Ms. Maguire, the muse itself becomes a dangerously jealous lover in an unexpected love triangle: tempting Catherine with artistic highs and plunging her into grave doubts.
Through March 4, 2007 at the Anheuser-Busch studio theater at the Center of Contemporary Arts, 524 Trinity Ave., University City, MO. For information, visit www.orangegirls.org or call (314) 520-9557.
Standing On My Knees
Cast (in order of appearance)
Poster design by Dawn Hopper