Thunder Road Ensemble and Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company

at Mary-Arrchie Theatre


Strawdog Theatre Company

John Olive’s Standing on My Knees presents a refreshingly demystified account of the risks undertaken by those whose work requires them to delve into the darkest corners of the psyche.

Catherine has recently been released from the hospital after her third schizophrenic breakdown. Her therapist prescribes a regimen of psychotropic drugs, which inhibit her nightmares but also her inspiration. Her publisher pressures her to get back to work on the book that will make them both famous. Catherine’s fear, however, is that her talent may have become her enemy. And though her friends try unsuccessfully to understand, she alone must decide whether the greater loss will come from continuing or abandoning her only joy.

This material could, in the wrong hands, be reduced to Gothic melodrama or to a mundane disease-of-the-week TV movie. But this collaboration between the delicate internalized approach of the Thunder Road Ensemble and the slam-bang externalized one of the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company sets up a perfect balance, rendering the play sensitive yet sensible. The narrative is accurate without ever becoming gratuitously clinical. Tom Burke and Ruth Gilmore’s Cornell box of a set reflects in eerie detail the range of the poet’s imagination, allowing Amy Eaton’s Catherine to emerge as a counter-stereotype. Her “sane” companions are played, under the steady and intelligent direction of Richard Cotovsky, by Cheryl Graeff, Fran Martone, and David Mitchell Ghilardi with compassion and humor that never descends to caricature.

It’s always a hazardous proposition when theater companies work in tandem, but in this case the effort must be counted as an unmitigated success.

Isabelle Eberhardt’s goal was to trade the worst of European culture for the best of North African, but in 1897 dropping out–even in monastic garb–was not easy. Was she a courageous early feminist, a disenfranchised rebel, or simply an eccentric? Playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker explores these mysteries in New Anatomies, which traces the short but astonishing life of the overeducated and underloved woman who came to be known as “La Belle Nomad.”

Surely one does not ride in the Sahara with bedouin chieftains without getting a bit rough around the edges, and nobody gets rough better than Julia Neary. She brings to her heroine an unembellished honesty and an electric physicality. Sixteen of the rapacious colonialists from whom Eberhardt longs to escape are portrayed by Jamie Pachino, Maggie Carney, Karen Hough, and Natasha Lowe–four versatile actresses who slip seamlessly from one role to another. Particularly amazing is Carney, whose personas range from a lecherous French officer to an English music-hall singer who performs in drag.

Director Amy V. Fenton, with the assistance of a superb technical crew, unifies the production. Special mention is due composers Jennifer Trowbridge and Shawn Wallace, whose music acts as an aural magic carpet, whisking us from the bourgeois quarter of Geneva to a sun-soaked outpost in Algiers to a lesbian salon in Paris in the wink of a camel’s eye.