The Day Maggie

Blew Off Her Head

Serendipity Theatre Company

at Victory Gardens Theater

Few things in my life have been more heartbreaking to watch than my friend Carolyn flirting with men. Carolyn is one of the smartest, most capable people I know, with a strong sense of self and a fierce feminist streak; she even started a women’s theater festival back in college. But when she ended up in close proximity to a man she hoped to attract, her voice became high and pinched, almost babylike, and she laughed at inanities, ran her hands repeatedly through her long brown hair, and expressed fascination with nearly anything the man might say, no matter how trivial or stupid. Most disconcerting of all, she seemed unaware that any change had come over her, staring at me quizzically when I later brought up her behavior. It seemed that something powerful but invisible had all but erased her personality, had made her believe that a woman must be shallow, titillating, and eminently available to be attractive. Such is the force of cultural programming.

Playwright Amy Bridges wrestles with the same force in her ambitious and troubling play The Day Maggie Blew Off Her Head. The story is simple. Maggie has been overweight all her life and as a result has suffered the vicious taunts of her classmates and the subtle insults of her self-hating mother. Every message she receives tells her she’s an ugly failure, yet she struggles with all her might to keep her head up, certain there must be something good inside her that no one can see. But when her marriage to the viciously unhappy Jim falls apart, she downs a bottle of tequila, sticks the barrel of a rifle in her mouth, and pulls the trigger.

It’s a story that could easily degenerate into cliched melodrama, but Bridges takes a wildly comedic approach to the material–one that falters at first. The play opens as Maggie arrives in heaven dressed as a beauty queen with a sash that reads “I Lost.” She stands before a tribunal of flitty British snoots, as maniacal and nonsensical as a triumvirate of Mad Hatters, who will judge her life to determine whether she can stay. Lazarus and Solomon act as waiters, while a slovenly man no one else can see endlessly shovels food into his mouth. The scene is so disorienting and seemingly random in its iconography that Bridges appears to be yet another young playwright out to prove just how quirky she can be.

The quirks continue unabated in the next scene, an irrelevant public service announcement for condoms featuring two horned-up 12-year-olds. Next we see Maggie as a seventh-grader in health class, where her crazed teacher spells out the multiple horrors of untreated STDs in graphic detail, and it seems Bridges will make nothing but big, uninteresting choices. But then the class breaks up, and Maggie is accosted by two popular girls who, in a perfect simulation of adolescent bravura, delight in calling her “dog face” and “faggot.” This assault leads Maggie to huddle with her friend Jenny, and the two find relief fantasizing about their ideal weddings, which will be as pink and gauzy as a Laura Ashley bassinet. They dream of becoming Miss America in order to receive the greatest prize imaginable: a lifetime supply of Maybelline.

At last Bridges has set Maggie on her fateful journey, showing how she finds youthful solace in the same unattainable self-image that will lead her to destruction and, more important, dramatizing Maggie’s growing need to cling to that image. It’s a moment at once ridiculous and recognizable, especially since both Heather MacDermott as Maggie and Allison Bills as Jenny play it with utter earnestness and naivete, holding fast to their dreams of womanhood like toddlers clutching teddy bears. If we laugh, it’s out of compassion tinged with despair; at 12, these girls have already bought into every repressive ideal of femininity Western culture has to offer.

In the rest of her 90-minute first act, Bridges ingeniously orchestrates the torrent of forces that push Maggie to the brink. We meet her weight-crazed mother, who compels her daughter to eat nothing but hard-boiled eggs and grapefruit, convinced that the chemical reaction between the two speeds weight loss. And she never lets Maggie forget that her own dreams of becoming a singer were dashed when she became a mother. “You don’t get what you want,” she says. “That’s lesson number one of living on planet earth.” Still, she insists, you’ve got to always look your best and be ready to cater to your husband’s every whim.

We meet jittery, dumpy hausfraus in a Waste Watchers meeting who’ve been trained to believe overeating is their problem rather than a symptom of something larger. When that larger picture is thrown in their face in excruciating detail–one of the women erupts into a harrowing story of her life torn asunder by the demands of her children and husband–they stare blankly until one responds, “You seem frustrated.”

And we meet Jim on Maggie’s first date with him as the two intertwine on the brink of coitus. Of the many strong scenes in the first act, this one is perhaps the most impressive, with Bridges expertly directing a whirlwind of contradictory impulses. Maggie is repulsed and attracted by the prospect of losing her virginity, literally screaming at herself to separate what she wants from what she’s been trained to believe she wants. Jim is at once a boorish lout and a sensitive sweetheart, one moment comparing her to the other “cheap sluts” he’s slept with, the next telling her he’ll take all the time she needs to feel comfortable with him. Thanks to Mike Thornton’s meticulous portrayal, he’s as beguiling and mysterious to us as he must be to Maggie.

Perhaps Bridges’s greatest achievement in this scene is its extraordinary condensation–Jim goes from saying “I wanna fuck you” to “I love you” in ten minutes, and the transformation is entirely credible. Bridges condenses the action in a similar manner throughout the first act, so that by its conclusion, as Maggie stands in her wedding gown about to take her vows while her mother insists that to a wife “there is no such thing as being too tired, too busy, too sick,” it seems Maggie’s entire life has been presented. When Maggie finally tries to unload 50 tons of self-hatred on her mother, a woman who can barely stand up under the weight of her own self-loathing, Maggie seems ready to put the rifle in her mouth right then and there.

Bridges’s extraordinary skill in her first act renders her second act somewhat superfluous. Nothing in the second pushes Maggie with the kind of focused ferocity seen in the first half. Even her discovery of Jim’s infidelity with a stripper feels anticlimactic compared to the showdown with her mother. And the scenes get more outlandish and absurd just when the play needs to settle into its darkest truths; the Waste Watcher women belting out “You Light Up My Life” isn’t the most thought-provoking way to set up Maggie’s suicide. And the play’s conclusion in heaven is nearly empty.

Despite the second act, Serendipity’s 13-person cast turn in rock-solid work. Under Ross Shirley’s direction, the performers, for the most part, find great subtlety and nuance in what could easily become cartoonish. Bills and Thornton may steal the show with their sharp-edged character work, but MacDermott has the most demanding job of the evening–and not just because she never leaves the stage. For the play to work, Maggie must be a cipher, someone everyone dismisses as a nothing, with all semblance of personality squeezed out of her through years as a failure in training. MacDermott, a vibrant actress, miraculously transforms herself into a dud, without the slightest spark in her eye and with hardly a thought in her head. Yet she also captures the heartbreaking turmoil that goes on in Maggie’s soul–an amazing accomplishment given the nearly blank expression she wears through most of the show. When she unloads on her mother at the end of the first act, for example, she hardly raises her voice, but the full force of her fury is still breathtakingly present.

Curiously, The Day Maggie Blew Off Her Head won the Edward Albee Play Lab Award back in 1997, yet it’s only now receiving its world premiere with this production. Part of the problem may be the weak second act or the overly large cast. But such considerations don’t seem to stop producers from putting up every quirky Nicky Silver play that comes along, no matter how irrelevant. Perhaps the real problem is its “female focus.” One woman in the audience asked her husband during the intermission, “Are you thinking this is a woman’s play, or do you like it?” Apparently he couldn’t think both. I was reminded of the 30 or so female students I taught at Northwestern University, every one of whom told me that at some point in their academic careers professors had nixed proposed research papers because “women’s issues” were “too narrow.” Such is the force of cultural programming.