The Glory of Living

Circle Theatre

By Carol Burbank

The psychology of murder is a seductive subject for contemporary storytellers. “Real-life” killers in novels, television, and plays have out-horrored the supernatural terror of classic tales. But sometimes these stories inadvertently glorify the killers and their crimes in the process of giving us a good story and a gripping, if speculative, explanation of the killer’s psychology. Rebecca Gilman’s grim, well-crafted drama about the youngest woman in the United States to be sentenced to death fits comfortably into this genre, but it’s saved from the voyeuristic excess of the usual fare by its two remarkable lead actors and by Robin Stanton’s hard-hitting direction of this Circle Theatre world premiere.

Lisa is a child bride who procures sex partners for her abusive husband, Clint, then murders them. Gilman’s spare script gives us full characters without glamorizing their viciousness and ignorance, letting their actions speak for them in ways their blunt speech can’t. But the play’s greatest strength is its open-ended feeling. Gilman’s surprising conclusion presents an ironic and touching contrast between the brutality of Lisa’s life and the polite tenderness most of us know as the baseline of communication. Lisa’s story becomes an unromantic fact, an ongoing tragedy that ends in her conviction.

Stanton, best known for her staging of last season’s And Neither Have I Wings to Fly at Seanachai Theatre, directs this production with an edgy, focused energy. Lisa’s psychological path from neglected 15-year-old to convicted murderer is placed in the context of the emotional violence surrounding her compliant and increasingly numb character. Stanton ups the pace both within scenes and between them, as stagehands slam truck-stop fast-food trash and a bed and lamp into their places–a string of hotel rooms is represented as an increasingly violent rain of litter. Gilman’s victims are different kinds of people, but all are inanely casual about the squalor around them and their own danger. Set designer Elizabeth Schindel’s ratty, angular walls contain but do not close in the scenes; the torn wallpaper, metal sheeting, and cinder-block accents mock any idea of home, or even shelter.

Marty Higginbotham and Deborah Puette, playing Clint and Lisa in simple strokes and with a pinpoint focus, evoke a relationship based on intimidation and fantasy. Lisa, pinned beneath Clint’s body, reacts to his jealousy with resigned boredom, saying, “I’m an ugly, old hag — ugly and old as the hills.” Clint, still caught up in rage and aroused by his power, shouts hoarsely, “You’re a goddamn baby–you’re my goddamn baby!” These are the limits of the couple’s relationship, their defining selves captured in the feelings projected onto Lisa’s 18-year-old body. There is nowhere to go; there is no up in this play.

The play’s tension depends on Clint’s escalating dominance and Lisa’s at-first mysterious compliance. Higginbotham makes Clint’s caresses threats, his pet names full of rage, and his rages eerily sudden and full of hidden fear. At first Clint is almost likable, a familiar seducer offering Lisa attention and praise to get her to take a ride with him and give him sex–the same strategy they use later to lure their victims. Years afterward, Clint’s persuasive tactics are the same, but they ring empty with the hollowness of habit and unmasked viciousness. Higginbotham’s bulk and stealthy callousness make Clint’s power over Lisa transparent, but his threat to her goes beyond the pop psychology of coercion.

Puette’s subtle, extraordinary performance–her slender immobility is remarkable–adds a realistic complexity to the nature of Clint’s coercion. Lisa is childlike and numb by turns, and Puette’s face becomes more blank and her affect more stoic as she shifts at will into the anticipatory stillness of a stalked animal. There is never a moment when she does not choose survival, although often in its most limited sense. As she accepts and adapts to the losses and rules of her partnership with Clint, we begin to understand the ways her naivete, courage, and ignorance combine to create a murderer who takes a numb pleasure in her acts.

Puette’s matter-of-fact statements, sweet quick smile, and lanky way of curling into herself when she sits show us Lisa’s power as well as her powerlessness. This is particularly clear when Lisa talks to her lawyer, Carl, played with throwaway charm by Mark St. Amant. As she begins to understand the threat and then the sentence of her execution, Lisa opens up to the freedom of “having her own room” in prison and talking to a sympathetic listener. By accepting the consequence of the murders without sentimentality or self-pity, she bluntly shows that the liberal fantasy of taking on moral responsibility and maturing in the process does not apply in her case.

Lisa embodies the complicated figure of victim and victimizer, a killer who kills because she cannot imagine any other choice or any other power. This is not an easy state to understand or represent. Puette’s unflinching, straightforward portrayal allows the character her complexity and helps Gilman, a resident playwright at Chicago Dramatists Workshop, to avoid the traps of the genre.

Through cold-minded storytelling, this production compels us to pay attention to the ordinary: ordinary hotel rooms and people whose violent actions are all that distinguish them from invisible drifters. Not content with a melodramatic exploration of a sociopath’s history, Gilman compels us to consider the reasons for and consequences of a more common disconnection from family, love, and the power to imagine choices.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Greg Kolack.