Regional Reviews: Boston
Jennifer Barclay, a self-described "actor-turned-playwright" and currently an assistant professor of playwriting and performance at the University of Maryland, gives us a profound and deeply moving play. Set in the fictional Tavistown, New York, it features three mothers overseeing their high-school-aged children in a production of Our Town. The mothersZoe (Veronika Duerr), Miriam (Stacy Fischer), and Felicia (Samantha Richert)performed the play when they were young, as it's a longstanding tradition for the Tavistown high school. Zoe is our narrator, delivering most of her lines as direct address to the audience. Atop this meta-narrative structure, Barclay interweaves charged political themes with the broader subject of collective trauma and an intensely intimate portrayal of the terrors of motherhood (fathers are notably absent)primarily, facing the fact that parents can never truly know everything their children think, feel and experience.
Barclay takes a wide-angle lens to an issue sadly familiar to Americans today: school shootings (that feels like a spoiler because it's not stated right away in the play itself, but I'll drag the program into this again since it is discussed openly in director Jennifer Barclay's notes). She then narrowly zooms in on her characters, grounding the play in individual human responses to national tragedies, which are also personal tragedies. It feels like a dark twist of fate that, though workshopped in 2016-2017, and planned for this season since last year, Ripe Frenzy saw its world premiere here ten days after the shooting in Parkland, Florida, the deadliest in our country's history. Tavistown feels all too real; it's the kind of quaint-sounding town you've never heard of until something terrible makes it national news.
Duerr, Fischer and Richert form the tripartite performance nucleus. Fischer has performed with New Rep previously in A Christmas Carol, Fool for Love, Picasso at the Lapin Agile and My Name is Rachel Corrie, among numerous area credits; she plays Miriam with great emotional dexterity. Richert, an adjunct faculty member in Northeastern University's theatre department, plays humor and tenderness in equal measure as Felicia and boasts many area credits for both acting and stage fighting choreography.
It is Duerr, however, who is the emotional engine of the show, which at times essentially amounts to a one-woman performance, given her role as narrator and that as the audience we see the events of the play through her perspective. Duerr manages to be immensely funny while subtly exposing her character's underlying trauma and grief. Reilly Anspaugh and Henry B. Gardner (both BU acting students, both making their New Rep debut) play the teenage stars of the school play who are also girlfriend and boyfriend and children of Miriam and Felicia, respectively. Appropriately flippant (and borderline obnoxious) as carefree high schoolers, Anspaugh and Gardner double as ancillary characters that nevertheless let them showcase their broader talents: Anspaugh as awkward loner Bethany and Gardner as a nightmare version of a school shooter who confronts Zoe in a climactic, thesis-like scene.
I commend the artists for tackling such a difficult subject with sensitivity, empathy, and depth of feeling, approaching it from a thought-provoking perspective. There is something in this production that speaks to all of us, I think, even if we've only experienced such tragedy from a distance. And that is part of Barclay's point: there is a shared humanity within suffering that transcends time and space. This story is our story. This town is our town.
Ripe Frenzy, a National New Play Network Rolling World Premiere production, runs through March 11, 2018, at the Boston University College of Fine Arts Studio ONE, 855 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston MA. Tickets may be purchased by calling the New Rep box office at 617-923-8487 or online at newrep.org.