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Theatre in Review: Inner Voices (Premieres/TBG Mainstage Theatre)

Finn Douglas. Photo: Russ Rowland

An eleven-year-old boy named Finn Douglas holds the audience in his tiny palm for forty-five minutes in The Costume, the highlight of this edition of Inner Voices, the occasional series of one-act solo musicals produced by the group known as Premieres. Set on Halloween 1954, The Costume details the plight of Leo, a young boy living with a widowed mother given to "spells" that cause her to withdraw from the world, "and then Grandma comes over to check on me," he says, resignedly. Such abandonments are only part of his melancholy lot. Small for his age, prey to bullies at school, and left out of his class' "Meet My Father" presentations since his dad died in the war, Leo is a lonely, heartbreakingly stoic figure. All too typically, he plans to spend Halloween at home because his mother has once again taken to her bed and has forgotten to make a costume for him.

Instead, Leo is given a great, galvanizing responsibility. Mrs. Kelton, his neighbor, has discovered in her front yard a pigeon with a wounded wing. Enlisting Leo's aid, they tend to the wing, which shows every sign of healing, and they make a little bed for the bird in the box that usually houses Leo's church shoes. Because Mrs. Kelton and her husband will be going to a costume party that night -- celebrating the holiday that Leo must forgo -- she assigns him the task of tending the bird for the evening. "I was the wrong man for the job," Leo sings at the beginning of the piece, signaling his deep anxiety at caring for this fragile, ailing creature. The rest of The Costume, which unfolds during Leo's night watch, is filled with poignant details: the boy's memory of gazing longingly out his window on a Sunday morning at the happily married Keltons lying in bed; his account of the struggle to get through the school day; and his obvious sadness over the father he never really knew. During such passages, Daniel Zaitchik, the writer/composer, subtly lays the groundwork for a plot twist that reveals Leo's previously unspoken connection to the wounded bird.

This is an extraordinary little piece -- as delicate as Meissen china -- with a sensibility that recalls the writing of Carson McCullers or perhaps Harper Lee. One foot wrong and disaster would ensue: To hang an entire piece on a child performer would seem to be an act of folly, but Douglas is word-perfect, unaffected, and so emotionally transparent in his handling of Zaitchik's lovely music and words that one can't look away, not even for a split second. Much is made of the meaning of the word "iridescent" in The Costume, but it contains a shimmering beauty all its own. Noah Himmelstein's direction is in line with his collaborators' contributions, right up to the moment that Leo, inspired by his experience, comes up with a beauty of a costume -- and, quite possibly, redemption for his sorrows.

The other two pieces that make up Inner Voices aren't quite as accomplished as The Costume, but there's so much talent onboard, you might not mind at all. Window Treatment focuses on a nutty Manhattanite singleton who is obsessed with the man living in the building opposite. She doesn't just spy on him, Rear Window-style; she also tracks his movements, leading to a couple of near-miss encounters in public. How far gone is her fixation? It's 5:22 and he isn't home yet; what could that possibly mean? He can't have fallen in love -- can he?

Initially, Window Treatment finds a considerable amount of fun in this bizarre premise. Our heroine imagines the distant object of her affection purposely leaving his apartment with an umbrella on a blustery day just to rile her, then, dismissing the thought, announces, "That would be crazy!" -- as Daniel Green's music swells and climbs the scale, tacitly admitting she is careening toward the border of sanity. (Farah Alvin, the star, throws out her arms and scowls, as if banishing insanity from the room -- revealing her character as blissfully unaware that she is acting mad as a hatter.) There's sly fun in lines like "You never use that gym membership that we got last year" and a riotous bit when she answers the phone and reveals her profession -- which is, to say the least, incongruous, given her circumstances. But Deborah Zoe Laufer's book stretches out the situation too long and one becomes impatient with this cracked character. Still, Alvin, under the direction of Portia Krieger, sings powerfully and acts with a deadpan seriousness that amusingly exposes the absurdity of her character's position -- and both the words and music are never less than pleasant.

The final piece, Scaffolding, stars Rebecca Luker, as incandescent as ever, as a single mother busily taking her son through the college admissions process -- an effort that she imagines will be their mutual triumph. The boy, it seems, is a math genius with a gift for memorizing maps; since grade school, his dream has been to be an urban planner. Such is her maternal devotion that only gradually does she let drop the news that the boy has been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder. This may be the first (and only) musical to make witty use of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.

But here's the thing: She has never told the boy about his condition. She has all sorts of reasons -- his diagnosis came late, when he was already in high school, and she didn't want to further isolate him from his peers. Besides, she notes with no small satisfaction, when he was little she instinctively put him through the training that experts call scaffolding, teaching him to look for the visual cues that reveal how people are reacting to his behavior. So, really, everything is fine -- except, if that's so, why is she secretly following him to a Starbuck's to spy on his interview with a representative from MIT?

Of course, her lie is about to explode in her face. The second half of Scaffolding features Luker's character, a year or so later, facing the consequences of her actions and reaching to take responsibility for the disaster she brewed with the best of intentions. Your reaction to the piece may hinge on whether you believe that a mother could keep her son in the dark for so long; for example, how could she have obtained extra time for him on the verbal portion of the SAT without cluing him in as to why? (One also has to wonder how, if the son struggled socially for years, he went undiagnosed.) Jeff Blumenkrantz, the writer/composer, is asking the audience to swallow an enormous piece of contrivance.

Still, Blumenkrantz's depiction of a mother's love -- her refusal to surrender her belief that every problem can be solved -- is touching, and his music is suffused with a certain radiance that, at least while Scaffolding is in progress, one easily surrenders to it. His secret weapon is Luker, who matches her silvery soprano to an innate honesty that is heart-piercing. Victoria Clark, who surely knows a thing or two about the character's plight, having played, in The Light in the Piazza, a mother who must learn to let go of her mentally challenged daughter, directs with a deft hand, efficiently steering the action away from the maudlin. The final image, of Luker's character wondering if her son will someday be a father -- "And if so/Will he look back/And think more generously of me then?" -- is hard to forget.

The overall production has a fairly simple, thoroughly appropriate design package. Reid Thompson creates three distinct settings, in each case using the minimum amount of furniture to get the job done, relying on Aaron Spivey's sensitive lighting to create a dedicated atmosphere for each. Brooke Cohen Brown's costumes are well suited to each character and Sean Hagerty's sound design is barely discernible, but for the fact that one can understand every word. Inner Voices, which happens at two-year intervals, is usually a great opportunity to encounter up-and-coming talents. It also provides established names the opportunity to try something different. This edition scores on both fronts; its roster is filled with artists who, clearly, are going places. -- David Barbour

(1 November 2018)

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