Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Dreamcatcher's Full Bloom
Explores Female Body Image

Shydel James and Joanna Maulbeck
Phoebe Harris is a 15-year-old high schooler living in a Greenwich Village townhouse with her mother, Jane. We have it on the unassailable word of her mother and their loyal friends, the couple who live upstairs from them, that until very recently Phoebe had been an ideal child, happy, outgoing and friendly. The Phoebe whom we meet is withdrawn, moody and argumentative. She soon will stop attending school. Initially, Jane and friends assume that Phoebe's mood change is ascribable to the fact that her father has left her and her mother in order to move in with a considerably younger woman. However, we soon learn that there is another issue which is the primary one in Full Bloom, the new play by Suzanne Bradbeer currently at the Dreamcatcher Theatre in South Orange.

It seems that the our Phoebe had long been an ugly duckling. At school, she had been the butt of cruel sexist behavior by the popular Danny, on whom she had a crush. However, Phoebe has recently developed physically and, in the process, become something of a looker. So much so that we are given to infer that men look at her with inappropriate desire. Even that so-and-so Danny has started to make moves on her. We know this back story because Phoebe tells it to us in one of a series of monologues which she delivers throughout the play ("they were admiring me, and that's good? That's good?"). It is Phoebe's awareness of her Full Bloom sexual allure which is the cause of her moodiness.

Additionally, Jane feels that it is because she has put on weight and allowed her once attractive figure to get out of shape, that she has lost her husband to a younger, more physically desirable woman. Crystal Dawn, the distaff half of the couple upstairs, is about to have the lines surgically removed from under her eyes. She is an actress and wants to look younger and fresher in order to enhance her opportunities. Oh, and Stephanie, an unseen school friend of Phoebe, had a nose job and, as a result, "made cheerleader." Rather than fleshing out the characters or bolstering the main issue of concern here, these concerns contribute to the meandering nature of the piece.

Still, these concerns are part and parcel of a real and painful issue more than worthy of exploration by writers of fiction. However, Bradbeer fails to illuminate them and integrate them into a fully dimensional work with three-dimensional characters. Despite countless scenes and any number of monologues, she fails to give us much insight into Phoebe. We are led to infer that some of her despair about her youthful attractiveness derives from her father's relationship with a young woman, but this is never explicitly explored. Why didn't Phoebe's mistreatment by her schoolmates affect the attitude displayed at home? Given the love and attentiveness of her mother and the childless neighbor couple who lovingly act as second parents to her, why doesn't Phoebe gain confidence and strength from her change in fortune? How does one get into the mind of a morose 15 year old? Is it possible to know why a particular child responds in her individual way to not uncommon phenomena?

Given her situation, we do understand why the newly attractive Phoebe would allow herself to engage in sexual relations with Danny, and then regret it. However, author Bradbeer does not offer any insight into her post-coital feelings. Certainly, it is realistic to portray Phoebe as uncommunicative. However, Bradbeer cannot be so. This is a conundrum which she has yet to solve.

The biggest howler of the play comes at the end. Phoebe has indulged in an extreme act as a result of her psychological condition. She tells us what she has done. Then, seemingly in a vastly improved state of mind, blithely announces that, as a result, she is in a psychiatric hospital receiving therapy. Therefore, she is now going to be alright. Thus, Bradbeer's ultimate message is that pathological mental illness can be quickly and fully cured by entering therapy. Lots of luck.

The Dreamcatcher production is superior in almost all aspects. Melissa Jane Martin's Jane fully conveys the frustration and weariness brought about by changes in her life and her daughter's sullenness. Jane's concern and love for Phoebe is always present just beneath the surface in her performance. Harriett Trangucci as Texas-born loyal neighbor and friend Crystal Dawn is delightfully perky as she tries to bring cheer to her troubled neighbors, and conveys a moving stiff upper lipped dignity in the face of her husband's opposition to her plastic surgery. Harry Patrick Christian convinces as her down to earth fireman husband, Jim.

Joanna Maulback lacks the polish needed to lend shape and vocal finesse to fully realize Phoebe. However, Maulback is very naturalistic and engaging, and has every reason to be proud of her effort in her professional debut here. Shydel James as a classmate of Phoebe's who is also an outsider is appropriately smooth and charming.

Laura Ekstrand has directed cleanly, getting fine performances from her cast and moving the play forward as quickly as possible, given its multiplicity of scenes and discursiveness. Jessica Parks' scenic design nicely encompasses in one set the several areas in and around the West Village townhouse setting.

Author Suzanne Bradbeer intelligently attempts to deal with a serious personal and social issue here. However, her subject is a difficult one, and, thus far, has exceeded her grasp. Despite the high quality of the production which Dreamcatcher has provided, as it now stands, the meandering Full Bloom would fare best edited down for presentation as an "After School Special."

Full Bloom continues performances (Fri. & Sat. 8 p.m./ Sun 2 p.m.) through May 14 at the Dreamcatcher Repertory Theatre, Baird Center, 5 Mead Street, South Orange, NJ 07079. Box Office: 973-378-7754, ext. 2228; online

Full Bloom by Suzanne Bradbeer, directed by Laura Ekstrand

Phoebe Harris……………..Joanna Maulbeck
Jane Harris…………….Melissa Jane Martin
Crystal Dawn……......Harriett Trangucci
Jim Giannini……Harry Patrick Christian
Jesse Williams…………………..Shydel James

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- Bob Rendell

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