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Theatre in Review: Accidentally Brave (DR2 Theatre)

Maddie Corman. Photo: Jeremy Daniel

"I should let you know I am not okay," says Maddie Corman near the top of her extraordinary solo show. "This isn't one of those shows where I'm here to tell you that I was okay and then I wasn't okay but now I am okay." It's a novel, attention-getting statement, since this form of theatre as personal testimony tends to fall into the category of My Problem and How I Solved It. Indeed, Corman's situation is one that defies anything like optimism. A busy working actress, she was happily married and the mother of three: "I had a really nice-looking life," she freely admits. "I had the nice house. And the cool husband and three great, gorgeous, difficult, hilarious children and a dog and a cat and a semi-great career and family and friends." It came crashing down one morning when, driving to a "guest spot on a semi-terrible TV show," she got a terrified phone call from her daughter: The police had appeared at the family home and were impounding her husband's computer, which, as it happens, was loaded with child pornography.

Corman never says his name, but her husband is Jace Alexander, whose career includes thirty-two episodes of Law and Order. (This is possibly the only irony that apparently escapes her notice.) He is also the son of actress Jane Alexander. These facts are enough to ensure that his arrest will lead to headlines in both the tabloids and the trades; suddenly, Corman and her children are caught in a spotlight that, for however long it lasts, will guarantee them the maximum of humiliation. (For the record, Alexander's transgressions were entirely digital; he insists -- and there is no evidence to the contrary -- that he never abused a child.) The actress candidly admits up front that Accidentally Brave is her not her husband's story, nor her children's; they can speak for themselves, or not, as they choose. Instead, her show is about how, day by day, she charts a way forward for herself. As a wise friend points out, "Self-care is the most important thing right now...It's like they say on the plane -- you have to put your oxygen mask on first."

Corman is a canny and perceptive observer of the descent that follows. Meeting with Alexander and his legal team after his arrest and release, she checks her phone and sees the story has spread across the Internet. "It's everywhere," she tells him. "My husband puts his head in his hands. So, the world and our community and our extended family find out just moments after the kids and I found out." Also: "If your life blows up and you aren't super-famous, but you are well-known-ish, the press will show up outside of your house, on your front porch." The phone calls pour in: Alexander is let go as coach of the school soccer team. He is removed from the board of the Directors' Guild of America. Both their names are taken off a gala invitation. Alexander is dispatched to a facility in Arizona, while Corman is left to make crucial decisions about finances and whether to put her twin sons into another school. Invited to Family Week at the Arizona "perv camp" (in the words of a sardonic friend), she resists accepting. "And then my sixteen-year-old daughter says to me, 'Didn't you make a vow to love Dad in sickness and in health? Well, Dad is sick.' So, I go to fucking family week."

Even in the midst of churning uncertainty and creeping horror, Corman's wit and eye for detail do not desert her. "I'm really worried that if I stay with my husband, people won't like me," she confides to her therapist. "Oh, Maddie," the shrink replies. "I assure you that there are already many people who don't like you." In another therapist's office, "I sit in the waiting room while my sweet, kind, serene boy is having his first session and...he is sobbing so loudly that I can hear him all the way down the hall." Taking her teenage daughter to Italy for a study-abroad program, she works overtime at trying to win over a set of parents, until her daughter notes, sardonically, that, during her charm offensive, she was holding a copy of Mending a Shattered Heart, Second Edition: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts.

Indeed, as Corman tells it, her biggest obstacle involves coming face to face with the truth that life presents some challenges that are beyond her can-do, ultimate-soccer-mom philosophy, typified by her attitude about the famed AA Serenity Prayer: "God, grant me the serenity -- Yes, I want that! -- to accept the things I cannot change....OK, now you've lost me!" But, on that trip to Arizona, she learns about the secrets from childhood that fed her husband's compulsions, which go a long way toward explaining why she often felt lonely and adrift in her marriage. She forms unbreakable bonds with other wives. ("We have nothing in common. We have everything in common.") "And," she adds, "I meet their broken husbands, who are doctors and generals and musicians and rabbis, and they're aren't evil trolls at all...I bear witness to human frailty and deep remorse and they aren't evil trolls at all. I bear witness to human frailty and deep remorse and I can easily see the abused boy in these other men." Another benediction is the famous actress -- no names, please -- who has been there and enters her life, providing a steady stream of support and sensible advice.

As I hope is clear by now, Corman tells her story with enormous tact and, whenever possible, humor, neither of which obscure the profound trauma that has been her lot. Surely, the director, Kristin Hanggi, has played a key role here, seeing to it that the star never strikes a sour or maudlin note in detailing the gradual process by which her shattered family puts itself back together. She has also assembled an adept, even inspired, design team. Jo Winiarski's talk-show-style set design and Jamie Roderick's lighting are solid, but this production is very much about projection and sound. Elaine J. McCarthy provides a stunning parade of images, including the couple's appearance in The Times' Vows column, any number of mortifying headlines, many family photos, and a collage of instant messages from Corman's friends, offering conflicting bits of advice. In one especially creative sequence, as Corman is driving to work and gets the dreaded news, the images behind her of passing streets become ever more tilted until they spin into a vortex. Bart Fasbender's sound design delivers Claire Wellin's original musical, the many offstage voices required by the script, and various effects.

And as Corman promises, if life goes on, healing is an ongoing, and unfinished, process. (I won't describe the very funny episode in which, on set at another television shoot, she realizes that even scandals as appalling as hers have short shelf lives, but it is a true moment of relief.) There are many victories, not all of them little. But Alexander's career is destroyed, and the family is permanently displaced, forced to pull up roots and begin again elsewhere. And, she adds, "When I google myself, my husband's mugshot pops up. I just am not sure how to not wear my partner's shame." If Accidentally Brave is any indication, she wears it with more grace than she may realize. -- David Barbour

(8 April 2019)

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