Heroes Inc. Ensemble

at the New Lincoln Theatre

While hitchhiking across the country, I discovered that my silence could elicit startling stories and disclosures from the people who gave me rides. Something about the monotony of the road, the intimacy of the automobile, and my own willingness to listen triggered these confessions, and I sat, spellbound, as one driver after another talked his way toward some sort of insight. I concluded that any person, if lulled into a relaxed, uncensored monologue, could utter profound truths.

Talking With . . . reinforces that belief. I don’t know how the playwright, Jane Martin, created these 11 monologues. I don’t even know if “Jane Martin” exists. According to theater lore, the manuscript for Talking With . . . simply appeared on the doorstep of the Actors Theater of Louisville one morning in 1982. Despite the play’s success, the author has never been identified.

But whoever wrote these monologues managed to create 11 distinct female characters who stumble toward some sort of insight while “talking with” the audience, or some unseen listener.

Sure, it’s a gimmick. The format makes Talking With . . . an automatic feminist theater piece, ideal for the premiere production of Heroes Inc. Ensemble, which says it is dedicated to “new plays and new directorial talent, specifically those of women.”

But the monologues are surprisingly effective, built out of those startling little insights that seem to trip off the tongue before self-consciousness or propriety can put a muzzle on such truth telling. Some are silly, some are steeped in pathos or mental instability, but all feature some sort of unveiling of the emotions, which can be as suspenseful as a striptease.

The ones that work the best for me are rooted in anecdote and reflection. “Clear Glass Marbles,” for example, performed by Linda Miles, features a young woman describing the last days of her strong-willed mother: when told she had only three months to live, her mother took to her bed with 90 marbles in a bowl at her side, and “learned to let go” of one each day. “Rodeo,” performed by Sheila Hodges, is about a broncobuster, “Big Eight,” who can’t abide the corporate types who have transformed rodeo into tame, glitzy family entertainment. “There’s a bunch of assholes in this country who sneak around until they see ya havin’ fun and then they buy the fun and start sellin’ it,” she sneers.

“Fifteen Minutes” is a wistful reverie by an actress (Josette DiCarlo) who says she would like to read each audience member’s biography–to even the score–before she steps out on the stage and engages in “a little lacerating self-exposure.” “Dragons” features a woman in labor (Andrea Tashiro) who knows she is going to give birth to a deformed baby. And Sharon Burke provides a disturbing ending to the play with “Marks,” about a nice, obedient woman who, after her husband leaves her, is slashed across the face when she refuses sex with a man who has picked her up. Instead of being ashamed of the scar, however, she comes to like the way it symbolizes an experience that changed her life, and she has her body tattooed with designs to represent the others who have “marked” her in some way.

The woman in “Marks” is clearly unstable, and such hints of mental illness are used in a majority of the monologues to add suspense and humor. In “Scraps,” for example, a housewife (Teri Pastore) has started dressing like one of the characters in her beloved Wizard of Oz books. “Audition” features a frustrated actress (Eileen Niccolai) who threatens to commit unspeakable acts if she doesn’t get the part. “Handler” is a heartfelt account of a religious snake handler (Debbie Hatchett) who realizes while performing during a service that “there ain’t no God in here,” but manages to prevent the snake from biting her by filling herself up with “a child’s pure love” for her “Dada.”

“Twirler” is about a baton champion (Julianne Martin) who claims she has seen “the face of the Lord Jesus” while engaging in self-mutilation. The slightly daft older woman (Tami Hinz) in “Lamps” lives in a loft crowded with lamps because she is mesmerized by the way light from different sources changes her environment. And the elderly woman (Audrey B. Pass) in “French Fries” longs to take up residence in her local McDonald’s.

The element binding these disparate characters is desperation. All are at a moment of crisis, and all are being pushed rudely toward self-examination and insight. Some don’t quite make it–they resort to bizarre solutions and denial. But they are all struggling, and that’s what gives this play dramatic tension, even when the performances tend to be superficial.

Of course, the performances varied as much as the monologues, but in general, these actresses neglected the personality lurking beneath the monologue. Julianne Martin’s rendition of “Twirler,” for example, was smooth, but she never established the self-importance and narcissism of her character, despite several hints in the text. And Linda Miles, even though she shed real tears, had only a vague, unfocused reaction to her mother’s death in “Clear Glass Marbles.”

Others came closer: Tami Hinz projected well the harmless eccentricities of an old woman in “Lamps” (although a malfunctioning lamp broke her concentration on opening night). Josette DiCarlo seemed to embody the loneliness and weary resignation of an aging actress in “Fifteen Minutes.” And Sharon Burke’s rendition of the tattooed lady in “Marks” was strong, even though she never moved from her chair.

In fact, most of the performers moved very little. Tammy Berlin’s static direction focused attention on the monologues, and the visual monotony, aggravated by an ugly set and weak lighting, would have been oppressive if the words hadn’t been so absorbing.

Fortunately, the monologues contain enough revelation and “lacerating self-exposure” to overcome the production’s shortcomings. As I discovered while driving through the night with strangers, the mere act of groping toward insight is naturally spellbinding, even when the setting is uncomfortable and the delivery graceless.