When people I know in theater ask me what growing company I think has its act together (horrible pun not intended), The Seeing Place is always the first that comes to mind. I’ve always promoted their work not only because the quality of the performances are among the strongest that I’ve seen but also because the company presents its work at a price ($12 a ticket) that is lower than anyone else’s in town (and this being New York, it’s the biggest theater town there is!) I know I’m not the only one who’s noticing — I have seen the audiences have grown over the two and a half years I have been reviewing The Seeing Place productions.
Nonetheless, such consistent quality performances have resulted in high expectations whenever I walk into the Sargent Theatre, The Seeing Place’s home for the last few seasons. For fans of quality indie theatre, this month The Seeing Place is offering two plays: Sam Shepard‘s A Lie of the Mind and August Strindberg‘s Miss Julie. I’m happy to report neither show disappoints, keeping The Seeing Place’s winning streak going.
A Lie of the Mind is Shepard’s most decorated play and tells the grisly saga of husband and wife Jake (Brandon Walker) and Beth (Erin Cronican). Jake, who is so prone to anger that the expression “short fuse” doesn’t even do him justice, has beaten his wife to the point that she suffers from brain damage. As both retreat to their families afterward, each has deep paranoia issues directed at their family members after a series of past family betrayals. Much of the blame can be put on the shoulders of Jake’s mother Lorraine (Janice Hall), who is apologetic for Jake’s actions and sees her son as blameless, and Beth’s parents, Baylor (Alan Altschuler) and Meg (Mary Lahti), with Baylor being so selfish and hard-headed that he longer seems to know what love is and Meg a ball of worry and confusion. Also adding to the family drama are Jake’s brother Frankie (Jason Wilson) and sister Sally (Magan Wiles) and Beth’s brother Mike (Philip Lakin).
I’ve seen Walker play similar frantic, mentally-troubled characters in past Seeing Place productions, and his performance is marked by his usual strength in conveying emotional outbursts on stage. The revelation here in Cronican, who completely commits herself to her difficult role in a way I’ve never quite seen from her before. It’s always wonderful to still be surprised by someone I’ve seen on stage several times in the past. Yet it would be unfair just to point at the two leads — there are a number of faces new to The Seeing Place in the cast, and though it’s hard to take your eyes off Cronican when she’s onstage their performances need to be recognized. This is one of the largest and, across the board, strongest casts The Seeing Place has ever had in one of the company’s productions. In particular, Altschuler, Hall, and Lahti as the parents each bring very different approaches to their parental roles as they — like unfortunately too many poor parents — ignore the things they’d rather not confront about their children. One great example is Altschuler’s body language — not only do his words express that Baylor doesn’t care much about his daughter’s fragile condition, but just the way he carries himself shows his total apathy. Likewise the actors in the roles of the siblings are convey their conflicted characters well, though I have to give extra credit to Wilson since he has to perform half of his role lying down (that’s definitely a lot harder than it sounds). Though directed by Walker, copious credit is due to lighting director Christopher D’Angelo and the rest of the production team make of the most out of the Sargent Theatre’s somewhat limited capabilities.
On the other hand, Miss Julie is a somewhat lighter (and much shorter) play, though the same theme of parental misguidance is deeply ingrained in the material. Jean (Robert King) is a servant on an estate engaged to Christine (Marnie Klar), the estate’s cook. Jean is educated and cultured beyond his status, and is the preferred flirting target of Miss Julie (Gabrielle Loneck), the daughter of the Count who owns the estate. Jean begins to see a relationship with Julie being his ticket out of his servant life, and is soon revealing secrets to her as their relationship moves beyond flirtation. But Julie has secrets of her own, and she is not the perfect escape he thought she could be.
King is an extremely charismatic actor and is more than matched by Loneck. I would say the same about Klar, but her character has a much smaller role in the play so she doesn’t have as much opportunity to demonstrate what I saw from her when I reviewed Love Song. King’s character goes through numerous attitude change and positions of power throughout the play, something he demonstrates quite well. Loneck too shifts from powerful temptress to scared child, and while the balance of power between her character and King’s switch often the transitions remain completely fluid. Curiously, the action is confined to only about half of the stage. I’m not sure if that was the right decision, because while it does reflect the trapped nature of Julie and Jean’s lives, it gives the actors limited space to work with. Then again, these actors could probably act just as well on a stage the size of a postage stamp, so what do I know?
While not as ambitious as A Lie of the Mind, I think I ultimately preferred seeing The Seeing Place reach into slightly different territory with Miss Julie. That’s not to say the latter was a better performance, it was just different from what I’ve seen from The Seeing Place before. For fans of indie theatre, either would offer a very satisfying night.
After one of the performances I teased Cronican about The Seeing Place regularly striving to overachieve by working themselves hard to present two shows at once in repertory. She laughed and then pointed out that the goal is to give variety to their audience. That sums up the attitude of The Seeing Place’s company: even joking around, the priority of audience enjoyment is front and center. Other theater companies should take note.
A Lie of the Mind runs at ATA’s Sargent Theater (314 W 54th Street, New York) until March 17. Performances run Wednesdays through Sundays. Performances of Miss Julie run through March 12 on Sundays through Mondays. Check out http://www.seeingplacetheater.com for more information.