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Her Requiem

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Naian González Norvind with Mare Winningham and Peter Friedman
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Because death is one of the very few experiences that all living people share, and because no one who knows what it's really like is able to tell the tale, it's always exerted a particular fascination. Theme park rides, certain foods, drugs, and every kind of art have struggled to either let us skirt mortality's grip at the last possible moment or help make sense of the inconceivable. So the foundation for Greg Pierce's new play at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater, Her Requiem, isn't just sound, its elemental: a group of people facing a certain vision of The End and dealing with it the only ways they know how (or, sometimes, don't know how). But little of what he's built on top of it captures your imagination, or for that matter your attention.

Things start off well enough. Caitlin, a 17-year-old Vermont resident, has taken her senior year off of high school to lock herself in her bedroom with only her computer and her synthesizer and craft from scratch the music for a full requiem mass. Never mind that her experience in composition is limited and her family isn't even Catholic. She's pursuing a goal that no one can conceive of her doing, let alone do themselves, and that in turn sparks new inspiration in the people her surround her.

Maybe make that obsession. Caitlin's father, Dean (Peter Friedman), is so consumed that he caters to all his Caitlin's ridiculous whims (soundproofing her bedroom, changing conditions in the rest of the house) and begins producing blog posts in Caitlin's name that delve into the meaning behind the music (at least as he sees it; a lot of global warming allusions, and so forth). The local Catholic parish's handsome young choir director, Tommy (Robbie Collier Sublett), has been spending countless hours alone with Caitlin in her room, helping her find her voice. Once music clips begin emerging from the room and are posted on the blog, they attach a Goth girl named Mirtis (Keilly McQuail), who is the first of a dozens-strong "pilgrimage" population that takes up residence in the family's barn, all of whom are inspired by the (to use Tommy's word) "miraculous" project Caitlin is undertaking.

The only two who aren't amused are Caitlin's mother, Allison (Mare Winningham), and her mother, affectionately called Gram (Joyce Van Patten), whose body and mind ailments are becoming severe enough that soon she'll no longer be able to live at home. Allison, forced to provide round-the-clock care for her mother while becoming increasingly separated from both her daughter and husband, is not amused at the cottage industry springing up around her, and the thousands of dollars and tragedies it's costing (fights between the Goths and environmentalists, frostbite for a man so entranced that he sleeps outside their window overnight, you get the picture).

Naian González Norvindwith Robbie Collier Sublett
Photo by Jeremy Daniel

Pierce has shaped the play beautifully, and watching it wend its way from a quiet musing on the nature of creation to a surprisingly potent dissection of the types of abuse children and artists alike open themselves up to when they open themselves up fully to the world. (That most of Caitlin's suffering doesn't look like suffering at first glance is no accident.) And the surprises and misdirections that crop up along the way, as everyone begins jockeying for position closest to Caitlin's gaze, are compelling.

Not much else, however. Only Allison is drawn with feelings and yearnings strong enough to warrant dramatization. Her attempts to hold on to all the parts of her life that are slipping away, and to maintain sanity within her out-of-control family, are genuinely touching; and Winningham, as always a naturally sensitive and highly likable performer, brings to the surface every drop of her pain. What exactly fuels Dean (beyond wanting to encourage his daughter) and his requiem fixation is left a mystery, making his erratic behavior largely unbelievable. Pierce paints Tommy as such a nice young man, you're all but counting the minutes waiting for his dark side (and, when it does, the details are not quite shocking).

Further, tone problems are rampant. The whole "tent city" subplot, and everything about Mirtis, is nonsensical almost the point of comedy; Pierce simply hasn't justified the notion that the project justifies as much attention as it receives (offstage). Some of this is due to Kate Whoriskey's muddy direction, which tries to blend the dream-realism of Derek McLane's refuge-cabin set and Amith Chandrashaker's lights with Joshua Schmidt's classic-echoing sound design, but most of it is baked in. Caitlin herself doesn't appear for most of the play, showing up only very late and treated as an inconsequential afterthought (through no fault of the fine young actress playing her, Naian González Norvind). This is part of Pierce's point, that the mythos surrounding Caitlin's work is overshadowing to the point of diminishment what she's actually doing, but her appearance is such an anticlimax that the character may have been more effective being unseen altogether.

Aside from Winningham, the acting is uneven, too. Van Patten is enormously appealing and funny, but so hardy that you can't remotely accept that Gram would need to be put into an assisted living center. Sublett charms with his church-boy-next-door persona, but is utterly unconvincing once Tommy's (similarly far-fetched) true colors are revealed. McQuail does everything she can with Mirtis, but it's such a distracted, distracting part, everything about it seems off. And the usually reliable Friedman is altogether at sea, leaving his character a blustery, annoying cipher, and stumbling over so many of his lines during the final press preview it wasn't difficult to tell where he thought he was going with Dean at all.

Oddly, the only destination that's clear is that of Her Requiem itself: It wants to remind us that the life we live and the life we give are both precious and worthy of respect, however elusive it may be. But for us to join the characters' journey, we have to be immersed in their world, and Pierce has not made that easy. Maybe Caitlin's composition really is one for the ages, but the it and the play that surrounds it are obsessed with music far too faint for us to hear.

Her Requiem
Through March 20
Claire Tow Theater (Lincoln Center Theater's newest stage), 150 West 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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