Thunder Road Ensemble

at Cafe Voltaire

Young Margaret Gallagher’s alcoholic mother has decided that her daughter must marry–not only because that is what women in their social circle do but because the Gallaghers are the biggest fish in their small New England pond. Matt, the boy chosen to be the groom, is a loutish specimen of manhood who disgusts Margaret not only for what she perceives as his life of privilege but for his insistence on maintaining an exploitive sexual relationship with Margaret’s empty-headed best friend, Joy, even while courting Margaret.

Gradually, however, Margaret begins to acknowledge the desires that make her existence so galling: she fantasizes about Joy “naked in a bowl of fruit salad,” visits a women’s bar and enjoys the attention she attracts there, and masturbates while pretending that two of her female dolls are getting married. After Joy publicly declares her claim on the passive Matt–whom Margaret is all too happy to relinquish–Margaret considers suicide but instead spends the summer in northern California, where she has her first lesbian affair. Returning that winter to her stifling home Margaret resumes her suffering: “[She] kind of hoped it would get worse, but it didn’t. The sameness of the pain made her more and more insane.”

Though the bare facts of Susi Levi’s Margaret (Perching) are fairly standard lesbian romantic fare, the enigmatic script leaves many questions unanswered. How old must Margaret be if she is marriageable but still plays with dolls? Or is that incident a childhood memory? Does Joy return Margaret’s suppressed affection? The play ends indecisively, with Margaret once again mired in ennui; only our dogged wish for a happy ending leads us to think that she’s only “perching” and will eventually fly away from her unhappy life.

The chief element carrying this pessimistic tale (which has a southern gothic flavor despite its New England setting) is its highly original use of the language. Whether lyrical (“their nakedness echoed by the lake in the silence of moonlight”), epigrammatic (“Like all ointment, it merely pacified the illness”), or arcane (“Margaret saw Joy coming out of the bathroom. Her womb turned and Matt turned to look”), Levi’s dreamlike language compensates for the occasional lapses in narrative continuity.

That is, it might have compensated, if the play had been performed in any space but the vaultlike basement of Cafe Voltaire. It could be that the cafe’s practice of booking several separate productions in a single evening forces performers to rush through their speeches, or maybe it was the prodigious clamor from the crowd in the restaurant above, but on opening night Levi’s prose was virtually unintelligible. Or perhaps the intimacy of the space fooled director Johannes Marlena into thinking that a conversational level of projection and enunciation would suffice (in fact, the low ceiling and porous walls tend to muffle sound). Or it could be that he considered the vocal aspects of the production less important than the visual.

Whatever, the male characters were not so handicapped as the women, possibly because most of the men’s speeches were directed to the audience. Nor was Mary Kathryn Bessinger’s narrator handicapped–she was (wisely) equipped with a microphone and amplified. But Jessica Levi’s Joy spoke in a slurring girlish gurgle closer to Los Angeles than to New England, and Kelly Lynn Hogan’s Margaret talked in a shy, delicate whisper with head bent–definite mistakes when coupled with Marlena’s blocking of these two characters with faces often turned away from the audience.

PerformInk cited Thunder Road Ensemble as their “pick of the season,” praising the company’s goal: “telling American stories,” a press release states, “that dramatize the romantic character of America–the struggle to maintain individuality.” That lofty goal is certainly present in Margaret (Perching), but it’s been put to naught by something as simple as bad acoustics.