Something rare is happening onstage now at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble’s new Edgewater space: two girls are talking about their lives—and what they’re saying has damn little to do with boys. Or vampires.
Mind you, personal demons are abundant in Catherine Trieschmann’s Crooked, now getting its midwest premiere at Rivendell under the precise and empathetic direction of Sandy Shinner. And one male figure haunts the imagination of Laney, a 14-year-old living with her mother, Elise, in Oxford, Mississippi. That man is Laney’s dad, a former sociology professor who’s been institutionalized—probably for life—with mental illness. An Oxford native, Elise has come back home from Madison, Wisconsin, to get a divorce and find a new job so she can get herself and Laney on their feet.
Laney has two strikes against her going into her new high school. She has dystonia, a neuromuscular condition that’s left her with a crooked back, and she’s an atheist in a part of the country where “Have you found a church yet?” is considered a polite conversation starter.
Laney is also a fiction writer, and for a while, her vaguely gruesome tales (lemonade-stand operators who take up guns) seem to suggest that Trieschmann is leading us into territory similar to that of Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman, in which a writer’s stories based on his own twisted childhood inspire horrific crimes. Instead, Laney’s yarn-spinning wins over another lonely heart: plump Maribel, whose mother insisted on unlicensed home-schooling prior to high school—setting Maribel back academically—and whose born-again father combines selling used cars with saving souls.
Maribel’s praise for Laney’s stories inspires the vulnerable newcomer to dip her toe into the waters of salvation, and also to kiss Maribel in the church sanctuary. Afterward, Laney tells secular, feminist Elise that she’s a “holiness lesbian. I believe in the power of the Holy Ghost, and I kiss girls.”
This may sound like a set-up for blue-state/red-state culture war. But Trieschmann’s real concern isn’t politics or religion. Crooked turns out to be an intimate look at the many ways in which we try and fail to sublimate our grief and guilt, and at the unintended emotional fall-out that results from doing what we justify as the right thing for others.
Elise hits the wine bottle while trying to play the cool, no bullshit, no drama mama. In one lovely interlude, she talks to Laney and Maribel—virgins both—about sex, joking at first about how “it feels really good when it’s with someone you’re not supposed to be with.” But then she follows up with a rhapsody on the unalloyed pleasures of sex with someone you’ve been sleeping with for years, who knows all your flaws and still adores you—the very thing she’ll never have again.
Laney seeks meaning in prayer, at one point accusing her mother of not doing her spiritual best to save Dad. Surely, she reasons, if Elise had simply prayed hard enough, he’d have been spared the nightmare of insanity. Elise’s response is typically blunt. “You can’t afford to have delusions,” she says. “They run in the family.”
Maribel, meanwhile, believes she’s got “invisible stigmata” and harbors a hopeless crush on a high-school boy. There are echoes of Carrie White, the telekinetic misfit from Stephen King’s Carrie, in Maribel, particularly during a gym-class bullying incident. The warmth between the girls turns darker when both Elise and Laney use Maribel as a punching bag, throwing verbal blows at her that they actually mean for each other.
Crooked takes us around a few narrative cul-de-sacs. Laney’s fiction is initially presented, for instance, as a key thematic element, but Trieschmann’s device of having her narrate her semi-autobiographical stories mostly just reiterates plot points we’ve already learned about in different contexts. What’s more, the conclusion of the 80-minute show is too abrupt.
But until we get there, Shinner’s actors deliver some of the most beautifully modulated and revealing work I’ve seen onstage in months. Tara Mallen’s Elise evolves from a wisecracking, hip single mom to a woman terrified of losing her daughter to the same malignant spirits that claimed her husband. Rae Gray’s Laney is near-perfect as a mercurial, awkward teen who lashes out at mom in part because she knows that’s the one person who won’t abandon her. And Hannah Gomez is at once captivating and heartbreaking as Maribel, a plain, ingratiating girl who’s smarter than the world thinks but still can’t find a way to articulate her pain—to make visible the emotional stigmata ripping into her heart and soul. Crooked provides an unflinching dissection of the terrors that shadow so many teenage girls but are seldom depicted honestly in the theater or onscreen.