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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Ambitious Dark Part of the Forest at Premiere Stages in Union

Also see Bob's review of Apostasy

Toby Poser
Leaving behind the urban dangers of the Three Rivers section of Pittsburgh, Joan and Bill are moving into a house that they have built on a two-acre property in a forest more than an hour west of the city. Bill, an air traffic controller, has stretched their resources to build the house in order to please Joan. It is his hope that her contentment will reverse the downward spiral of a relationship in which they are drifting apart. Joan has engineered the move because of her obsession with providing a safe, secure environment for her daughter. Thirteen-year-old Emily is terminally pissed at her mother for moving "two hours away" from her friends and interests. Thus, the stage is set for Tammy Ryan's ambitious and initially intriguing dark fairy tale-like telling of this family's sad journey into the Dark Part of the Forest

The play is given its full due and more by director John Wooten, and an outstanding cast. Wooten perfectly captures the Grimm fairy tale style which Ryan has employed to give theatricality to her story. The opening and each subsequent scene are atmospherically punctuated by musical excerpts from Prokofiev's "Peter and the Wolf". When gunshots are randomly fired, we see a magnified shadow of a hunter armed with a rifle moving across the rear of the stage. The setting of the house and its environs has an ominous openness and simplicity which suggests storybook illustrations. Throughout, Wooten has meticulously captured the style employed by Ryan in telling this story.

Ryan's thesis that random events beyond any individual's control make it impossible to guarantee safety and security, and that no one can rightly claim or be accused of blame for the end result of actions which form part of the chain that leads to tragedy is unassailable. Given both the punishing sense of guilt which people often evince, as well as their propensity to parcel out blame, this theme strikes a powerful and meaningful chord.

Despite all these virtues, at this time, Tammy Ryan's play is ultimately tedious and unsatisfying. The 90-minute, one-act Dark Part of the Forest is endlessly discursive. It is needlessly divided into at least twelve scenes (less than a seven minute per scene average after the monologues are factored in), each proceeded by a monologue delivered directly to us by Joan. It seems that Joan has recently decided that she wants to write fairy tales. Several of her monologues are musings on fairy tales. There are two early monologues which illuminate her state of mind. In the first, Joan expresses her fear that in restricting Emily, she is "turning into a witchy step.m.other" motivated by her discomfort at her fading looks and a concomitant jealousy of her Emily's burgeoning femininity. In the second, she wonders why Little Red Riding Hood's mother let her go into the woods, and asks "did she want her out of the way?" However, as the evening wears on, several of the monologues are variations on her then already established state of mind. And why couldn't most of the information imparted in the monologues have been integrated into the dialogue of the scenes? After all, there is a fourth, seemingly omnipresent character here —Karen, Bill and Joan's close friend from Three Rivers —whose major function is to serve as a sounding board for them.

Another problem is the awkward prominence given to a related story which (unclearly, at that) provides the rationale for Joan's fragile mental state. It seems that Joan was born and raised in New York City and, as an apparently sexually active teenager, was traumatized by the serial murders of young women (and, in several instances, their boyfriends when they were "parked" in cars with them). The last female victim before his capture was 20-year-old Stacey Moskowitz. Joan tells the thrill of placing herself along with her friends in situations which might attract "Son of Sam" (the appellation taken by the serial killer in letters to the police and press), but there is nothing to indicate when that excitement turned into traumatizing fear. And, after Emily goes missing (if you've gotten this far, you are certainly not surprised), there is a confusing scene in which the young actress who plays the 13-year-old Emily, dons a blonde wig and appears as Moskowitz in a scene depicting the attack by "Son of Sam" on her and her boyfriend. I have now concluded that this represents a dream or haunting image conjured by Joan, but, while seeing this scene in the theatre, frankly I found it totally confounding and confusing. In any event, this play, which has a third and more important strand, is essentially not about "Son of Sam", and the prominence given to him and his final victim throws the entire play out of balance.

On the other hand, the very strained relationship between Joan and Bill is not given sufficient develop.m.ent. Extended scenes between them should be at the heart of this play. Despite the schematic structure of her work, Ryan has laid the groundwork for a three dimensional couple. While Bill is far from a saint, he is making an honest attempt to hold their marriage together. While Joan's obsessiveness and unhappiness have driven Bill from her, as it now stands, we can only conjecture as to what extent and in what manner Bill has contributed to the latter. Their tragedy drives them further apart, but may yet bring them closer. Sadly, the intermittent, short scenes dealing with their relationship keep us at a distance.

Toby Poser and Gregory Northrop capture the humanity of the couple. In this case, the palpable lack of chemistry between them fully captures their relationship as both strive to find the emotional ties which first brought them together. Sarah Hyland is convincing as Emily. Manipulative and petulant, she is the epitome of an unhappy, young adolescent. Rita Rehn as family friend Joan is smooth and adept in an underdeveloped role which feels unnecessary.

Dark Part of the Forest continues performances through July 30, 2006 at Premiere Stages at Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083. Box Office: 908-737-7469; online

Dark Part of the Forest by Tammy Ryan; directed by John Wooten

Joan………………Toby Poser
Bill……Gregory Northrop
Emily………...Sarah Hyland
Karen……………….Rita Rehn
(Non-Speaking Roles: Joe Zehnder / Jonathan Weisbord)

Photo: Mike Peters

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