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Theatre in Review: Heart (Minetta Lane Theatre)

Jade Anouka. Photo: Trévon James

In Heart, Jade Anouka has quite a coming-out story to tell -- up to a point. A formidable actress -- she was a standout in Phyllida Lloyd's productions of The Tempest (as Ariel) and Henry IV (as Hotspur) and is featured in the HBO series His Dark Materials -- she gets personal here, sort of, recounting an evolution that begins with a traditional marriage and ends with the destabilizing realization that she is deeply in love with a woman.

Under Ola Ince's briskly paced direction, Anouka tells how her seemingly perfect marriage to, I think, a fellow actor -- I'm guessing at his occupation because, she says, "One of us is always touring out of town" -- falls apart when his chronic depression ("an old truth for him") kicks in. So effectively does he, in the grip of mental illness, push her away that divorce becomes inevitable. What follows is a period of upheaval, including a sojourn at home with her judgmental parents, followed by "eight months of sofa-surfing." In pursuit of sexual healing, she goes on a tear with men, but when yet another affair burns out - for reasons not fully explained - she turns to self-care, enjoying travel and good food. She appears to be coming into her own, advancing in her career and learning to accept pleasure for its own sake.

Then she meets a woman and falls in love like never before. "This is different," she says, incanting a list of fresh sensations. "This is more/This is something else, too/This is guttural/From my body/And my soul/This is new." So unexpected is it that, after the first rush of joy, she can't quite fully accept what has happened and what it says about her. An awkward on-the-street encounter with a casting director -- Anouka doesn't introduce her girlfriend, for fear of being pigeonholed as a lesbian -- opens a crevice in her new relationship that quickly becomes a chasm, forcing a personal reckoning arrived at only after considerable self-reflection and pain.

That Anouka is sincere is beyond a doubt; one senses that, for an artist skilled at portraying other people and their conflicts, it costs her something to admit, in public, how nearly she came to destroying the love of her life. And yet, as rendered, her journey is so interior that no one else involved has any reality. Neither her ex-husband nor her female lover comes to life; indeed, they are barely described. (This is also true of the guy -- a celebrity, I think, although I can't be sure -- with whom she enjoys a steamy interlude.) Her mother gets a tad more attention, but only as a conventional figure of older-generation disapproval.

The lack of specificity is accentuated by Anouka's writing, which seesaws rather notably in quality. She is good on the details of living out of her friends' homes. ("I learn of/The familiar sound of suitcase wheels along pebbled streets/My left cheek warmed by an Indian summer sun.") A passage in which she furiously defends her closeted attitudes is a sharp, staccato exercise in unconscious self-sabotage. But she frames her story extremely narrowly and not to her advantage. She announces early on that her Blackness has nothing to do with the story. Nor, apparently, does her status as the daughter of immigrants. (She does grapple a bit with her Roman Catholic upbringing but not deeply, using it to sweepingly dismiss all religion as an agent of oppression.) "This is not a black story," she says. "Or a woman story/This is perhaps a story/For all the misfits, all those who have ever felt 'other'." Fair enough, but self-hatred must come from somewhere, and gesturing vaguely in the direction of "society" doesn't give her much to work with.

Furthermore, Anouka, who is in her thirties and has a considerable history with men, never examines her previous apparent lack of interest in same-sex relationships. "I had fun with guys/But women got me," she says. "And I got them/There was a closeness/And mutual respect." But, she adds, no woman had ever come on to her, a surprising comment from an attractive and talented artist working in an industry heavily populated with out-and-proud members of the LGBTQ community. One wonders if a certain willful blindness prevents her from seeing herself more fully.

Anouka's ability to infuse even the most evasive passage with deep feeling keeps the proceedings watchable, whether she is lightly spoofing her blushing bride days, defensively ramming home an argument that exposes her worst impulses, or desperately arranging a meeting that, she hopes, will bring the woman she loves back into her life. Too much of the time, however, her incandescent emotions are not matched by incisive words.

Ince has also overseen a distinctly odd production design. Set designer Arnulfo Maldonado has draped the stage in layer upon layer of fabric, much of it diaphanous. (You could call it The Set of the Seven Veils.) Apart from its dowdy, wrinkled look, one wonders about its relevance to Anouka's story; other scenic puzzlers, appearing from time to time, include a tall lifeguard's chair and vertical light tubes. At least Jen Schriever's lighting teases out a rainbow's worth of unexpected colors; she also works fluently with color temperature contrasts, strobe effects, and shadowy looks. Emily Rebholz has dressed Anouka in a flattering blazer-and-pants combination. The near-constant underscoring, by Renell Shaw with additional contributions by Fitz Patton, is intrusive, as is Patton's audio reinforcement. Anouka is a trained classical actress; surely, she doesn't need such aggressive support.

It's possible that Heart will resonate with young audience members coming to terms with sexual identity issues or with those who haven't had extensive experience with gay theatre, where such stories proliferate. Certainly, the audience at the performance I attended was delighted to cheer on Anouka, who ends the evening with an update on her current relationship status. But the piece's overall impact is surprisingly anodyne; it's a show with a big heart, but an unrevealing soul. --David Barbour

(22 July 2022)

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