Brutality of Fact

Eclipse Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Theater

Eclipse’s decision to revisit this ten-year-old black comedy by Keith Reddin makes a lot of sense, and not just because the company’s in the middle of an all-Reddin season. Now that our commander in chief believes he has a direct line to the Almighty and that the Big Guy has given him special dispensation to ignore that pesky “shalt not kill” commandment vis-a-vis Iraqi civilians, a play about the destructive effects of religious fanaticism ought to pack a timely wallop.

But even with a somewhat improved ending, revised by Reddin since the play’s 1994 premiere at the old Goodman studio (under the direction of the playwright’s biggest champion, the late Michael Maggio), the piece is unable to overcome Reddin’s signature smirky disdain for his characters long enough to create the kind of unease and tension the subject warrants. Most of his characters nurse their petty grievances and self-destructive addictions in equally numbing measure.

Brutality of Fact traces the mutually recriminatory relationships between dotty Boston matriarch Val, her divorced and born-again daughter Jackie, and estranged middle daughter Maggie, a struggling semiemployed alcoholic. Jackie is locked in a bitter custody dispute with her ex, Harold, over their young daughter, Marlene, abetted by her creepy, unctuous attorney boyfriend (and fellow Jehovah’s Witness), Chris.

Harold claims (with apparently just cause) that Jackie’s harping on God’s wrath is causing nightmares for Marlene. Though the script calls for Marlene (played with winsome shyness by Alexandria Frisch) to appear only toward the play’s end, director Nathaniel Swift keeps the character present throughout by having her announce the scene titles (which, with characteristic Reddin overkill, include “Sympathy for the Devil,” “The Wages of Sin,” and other sledgehammer shorthand for religious excess). But the tactic doesn’t give us any insight into Marlene’s view of events, and serves to distance us from the characters’ lives, which are already generic enough.

Reddin writes plays the way pop composers write songs–there’s a catchy hook here, a bridge there, and then it’s back to the chorus, which is essentially “I’m miserable and I don’t know why.” The cinematic structure of short scenes hints at premises that are seldom realized, and though Reddin has an undeniable knack for acerbic one-liners, they’re nowhere near the sock to the solar plexus that, say, Neil Labute can provide.

I’m sure it’s symbolic of the characters’ alienation from their own motivations that Val, Jackie, and Maggie learn the darkest things about themselves during dream sequences, but these revelations would be more dramatic if they came out in the course of the characters’ waking dialogue. In an encounter with her deceased daughter, Janet, Val reveals that Janet was her favorite, and Janet hints that the girls were angry at their rich parents for choosing cocktail parties over their children. But this doesn’t come up in any of Val’s conversations with either Jackie or Maggie, so the estrangement between them feels forced. If there was ever a deep love between Jackie and Harold, it’s not apparent, so when he picks up Maggie in a bar later in the play (which provides a lazy offstage resolution to the custody fight) there’s no sense that anything’s been lost.

My biggest beef with this play, however, is that Reddin’s script fails to convey the nuances of religious belief. There are many deep and abiding reasons for people to turn to religion, and those reasons can provide lasting dramatic fodder (as even that old skeptic George Bernard Shaw proved in Saint Joan). But Jackie’s embrace of her faith seems random and rootless. She might just as easily have become a fanatic about Pilates or online trading or animal rights. Reddin sets up a zero-sum game between Jackie and Maggie that illustrates his limited view of female inner life: you can have faith, but it will make you uptight and nuts, or you can hide from harsh reality by drinking and screwing. Val is pissed off enough at the world to drive through store windows and smash antiquities at a historical society, but the cause for such rage remains a mystery, even to her. Only Corrine, a lesbian Maggie meets in a bar after fleeing an AA meeting, seems to come to any sort of peace with her life during the play (and Jennifer Pompa’s smart and rooted performance is a standout).

Given the script’s limitations, the ensemble manages to pull off some good work. Julie Daley nails Maggie’s edgy exasperation, and Kate Martin finds moments for Jackie where the emptiness and confusion of her life are reflected in the tight lines of her face and her painfully stiff posture. But the set design by Mike Winkelman (a collection of faded black wooden boxes stands in for most of the furniture and a series of interlocking doors covers the back wall) is indifferent and Chris Corwin’s lighting is dark and seemingly arbitrary. Fanaticism and nihilism are always more frightening in clean, well-lighted circumstances. The new ending–Jackie joins Maggie and Val at a restaurant, and the three seem to be on the verge of some sort of rapprochement–is an improvement over the original, where Jackie hauls Val off and Maggie clucks to herself, “Family.” But it’s an ending that feels like the beginning of a much more honest, less flashy play. And by the time it happens, one senses that Reddin has grown tired of his paper-doll characters and is ready for some new cutouts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Johnny Knight.