The Chicago Theatre Company

Writers complain about it all the time: “I know what I want to say, but I just can’t find the words to say it.”

I don’t believe that. When you know what you want to say, the words come automatically. They might not be as elegant as you’d like, they might not fall together perfectly the first time they come tumbling out, but they will convey your thoughts to others. The problems begin when you don’t really know what you want to say.

I don’t believe Nancy Rawles knew what she wanted to say when she sat down to write Nothing but a Lie. If she had started with even a single clear thought, she could not have produced a play so hopelessly muddled and confused.

With the help of a program note from the dramaturge, Deborah Wood Holton, I learned this much: “On a metaphysical level–one that is immersed in Catholic notions of good and evil and the various aspects of its religious symbolism–the play is a dramatic metaphor of Catholic ideas.” Really? I’ve ingested more than my fill of Catholic ideas: catechism lessons, confession, first communion, devotion, doubt, disaffection–the works. And yet I didn’t detect anything in the play that could pass for a “Catholic idea,” except for some very heavy-handed symbolism concerning the Virgin Mary.

What I did see was this: An old white woman named Miss Blanchard lies bedridden in her house, where a young black woman takes care of her. The black woman is a sculptor named Regina–a name derived, according to the dramaturge, from Maria Regina, the Latin name for “Mary, Queen of Heaven.” Regina serves Miss Blanchard loyally, hoping to inherit her house.

An alcoholic black gardener named Mr. Green (think that name is symbolic too?) is sexually interested in Regina, and maybe in the old woman too. His conversation is laced with lewd comments. When Regina keeps him at bay with a knife, he grins and, moving his pelvis, says, “I got a knife too, and I’d like to stick you with it.” But when Regina finally submits, Mr. Green not only can’t get it up but blames her for his failure.

At times the dialogue and the action do seem to leap onto some sort of “metaphysical level.” Regina, while sculpting a clay bust of a woman, delivers long, leaden monologues to someone named Sarah. (Is Sarah the woman she’s sculpting? Is she someone else from Regina’s past?) Mr. Green, or someone who looks like him, appears in a vision to Miss Blanchard. (Or was he really in the room? Did he really take those coins out of the vase on her dresser?) And the play ends with Regina stepping forward and holding aloft a statue of the Blessed Virgin. “Behold a virgin with child,” she proclaims, just before the lights go down. I’m sure Rawles intended this as a profound summation of the play’s theme, but to me it seemed totally arbitrary, unrelated to anything else. I couldn’t have been more bewildered if Regina had recited the Pledge of Allegiance.

Gloria Bond-Clunie’s direction does nothing to clarify matters. In fact, her blocking contributes to the confusion. After establishing that an invisible wall divides the two rooms, she lets the actors walk right through it: she seems to have no regard for spatial logic. After Regina and Mr. Green have been screaming at each other right outside Miss Blanchard’s doorway, the director has the old woman call out, “Regina, is Mr. Green still here?”

In the face of an incoherent script and careless direction, it’s not fair to expect much from the actors. They seem capable enough, but it’s hard to tell when they’re uttering such insipid dialogue. Ernest III Rayford endows Mr. Green with an incongruous charm, and the women–Karen Lynn Jones as Regina and Ruth Hamilton as Miss Blanchard–somehow manage to give their characters some personality.

At one point, Regina cries out, “Can it be that I’ve worked so hard to create nothing?” I heard the playwright speaking through that line. Rawles undoubtedly labored mightily on this play, but all she has produced is chaos. She has reversed the writer’s traditional lament–she has found words without knowing what she wants to say.