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Theatre in Review: Animal (Atlantic Theater Stage II)

Morgan Spector and Rebecca Hall. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

Rebecca Hall is an actress of such coruscating intelligence that she can even make madness seem lucid. As Rachel, who is under the care of a psychiatrist for reasons that only gradually become apparent, she manages to make clear that fools will not be suffered gladly, while simultaneously sending signals of deep distress. Faced with Stephen, her doctor (a supremely cagey performance by Greg Keller, who knows the value of the pregnant pause), she is flippant, almost taunting, about her situation. She believes she merely needs to declare her own sanity and he will "tick a box," allowing her to return to work. Thus, the playwright, Clare Lizzimore, reveals, without directly saying so, that Rachel is under Stephen's care against her will.

No doubt about it, Rachel is a formidable patient, a nut that resolutely refuses to be cracked. When Stephen makes a mildly humorous remark, she turns the floodlights of her scorn on it: "Oh my God. Was that a joke. My God, are you trying to lighten the mood?" There's a slight quaver in her voice, a querulous, questioning, are-you-really-wasting-my-time-with-this tone directed at the conversational banalities of others, reducing them to dust. When Stephen suggests that she do something nice for herself, like trying a cosmetic face mask, her response is withering: "Oh, so you mean, put some bubbles in the bath? Dress in a white robe, little white peep-toe slippers, and a face masque, and think of smiley things?" Then she adds, bitterly, "They didn't teach you that it's women in the movies that do that, and that real women step in shit on the way home, and spend the journey doing scrapey sideways walking to try and ditch the stench." This is the opening sally in a tirade that fully unmasks the fury behind her jokes and prevarications. It establishes, without doubt, that, whatever her problems, being out of touch with her emotions isn't one of them. Given a pointed argument such as this, Hall delivers it with military precision, arranging her sentences like soldiers in formation and making sure each word lands with the force of cannon fire.

And yet, when Rachel describes the store where she works, her words carry a faint whiff of disturbance. The lineup of products sold there, she says, includes "electrics, food, photos, and animals, right there, creatures, real, living, breathing rabbits, cats, dogs. I mean it, and there were these fish, these fish who were launching themselves at the passersby, like they'd evolved somehow..." Hall elegantly switches gears, replacing mockery with an intriguing air of distraction as the questions mount: Why can she not remove the woolen hat she seems to wear all day, every day? And why is she unable to answer when Stephen asks, "Are you having thoughts of hurting yourself, or harming anyone else around you?"

That last one urgently needs answering, because, despite her insistence that she has a full-time job, Rachel appears to be stuck at home with her mother-in-law, who is confined to a wheelchair, unable to speak. (A severe stroke would seem to be the most likely cause.) Rachel's resentment of this situation can't be contained, and in what is easily the play's most savage scene, lunchtime becomes a power struggle, with Rachel, enraged, slapping the old woman and force-feeding her from a can of tomato soup. Suddenly, Rachel's words come back to haunt us; earlier, she recalls a moment when her mother, teaching her about gravity, once noted that a penny, dropped from a great enough height, could kill someone. She adds, blurting out the words, "I'm afraid I'm the penny, Doctor."

Will the real Rachel please stand up? Is she the confident, sarcastic saleswoman? The faintly dissociated purveyor of the fantastic? Or the domestic sadist, exacting vengeance on the helpless? About the rest of Animal, my lips are sealed, for, as we gradually learn, Lizzimore is playing a tricky game: I will only add that there's a reason that the mother-in-law -- a stunning cameo portrait of infantilized old age by the gifted Kristin Griffith -- is listed in the program only as Old Woman. Other wild cards include Dan, a sexy young home invader who turns up at odd hours, knowing far too much about Rachel's life, and the little girl who addresses Rachel in a startlingly adult manner. Who are they and what's really going on? The twists packed into the latter part of Animal are surprising, but they are also self-defeating, the sort of clever manipulations most usually employed by writers of thrillers; in trying to explain the terrible suffering at Rachel's core, they come across as too clever by half. Such game-playing keeps us guessing but also undermines the play's serious intentions, which concern the profound displacement experienced by a modern woman following the path that has seemingly been set out for her.

Still, Gaye Taylor Upchurch's production keeps us vitally interested in what is happening to Rachel. The rest of the cast is equally persuasive, even when we aren't sure who is really who. Morgan Spector is a strong, sympathetic presence as Rachel's put-upon husband; he is especially touching during a dinner date that isn't at all what it seems at first. David Pegram's Dan matches Rachel, provocation for provocation; he is arguably the only character to get the upper hand with her. As the little girl, Fina Strazza holds her own against Hall, no small achievement.

Upchurch has wisely chosen to stage the production in the simplest manner possible. Rachel Hauck's set is basically a rectangular playing area, each location denoted by the minimum number of props and furniture pieces. Bradley King's lighting helps fill in the blanks, creating a variety of looks, including some nicely moody low-sidelight washes for the flashbacks that occur between the scenes proper. Sarah J. Holden's costumes are intelligently chosen, most notably the eccentric ensemble favored by Rachel. Stowe Nelson's sound design provides solid reinforcement for Daniel Kluger's faintly eerie original music, along with a variety of effects that include a cacophony of voices, birdsong, and a crying baby.

If Animal doesn't quite have the impact it aims for, if its final scene seems too neat, given all that has gone before, it has many gripping passages, and Hall makes Rachel into the fascinating, maddening, occasionally pathetic creature that Lizzimore wrote. It's been too long since the actress last graced our stages; let's hope that Animal is the first of many more appearances. I can't think of a playwright whose work wouldn't be enhanced by her piercing intelligence. -- David Barbour

(7 June 2017)

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