Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Independence takes place in Independence, Iowa, a rural county-seat town between Waterloo and Dubuque with a population that has hovered around 6,000 for decades. A leading claim to fame for Independence is the presence of the Iowa Mental Health Institute, an old-school state hospital built in the 19th century, and an intimidating looking stone structure with gabled spires looming above. Our view of Independence peers into the house where Evelyn Briggs grew up and still lives, where she braved through a failed marriage and raised three daughters, and which she returned to after several months in that same Mental Health Institute a few years back. Now she volunteers in the MHI craft room. Evelyn and her three daughters confront what "independence"the state of life, not the citymeans to them, and what it takes to achieve independence from the past and seek a new future.
The play opens with oldest daughter Kess returning to her childhood home for the first time in four years, since she had mother committed to the MHI. Kess is in her early thirties, an English lit professor in Minneapolis, and a lesbian. Her 19-year-old sister Sherry uses meaningless sex with a parade of boys to ward off boredom, and is eager to bolt the town after her upcoming high school graduation. Middle daughter Jo is 25, wears a neck braceevidence that Evelyn recently tried to kill herand is pregnant. The baby's father offered to marry her, but Jo declined. Evelyn depends on her. How could Jo leave? Kess is already gone and Sherry is totally self-centered and has one foot out the door. Jo is the dutiful middle child, poised to turn her life and even her child's life over to her mother's irrational fears, insatiable demands and utter loneliness.
And yet, it is Jo whose panicked call brings Kess back after her long absence. Jo is hoping her older sister will do ... something. She herself is not sure what. Kess's disdain for her hometown where she could never be herself, and for a family ruled by her mother's violent outbursts and catatonic withdrawals has severed any sense of belonging in the town or the home. Jo wonders if she wasn't too hasty in rejecting the offer of marriage, ruminating back and forth over her prospects for a life. Evelyn, though, will not cede control. She can be sweet as fruitcake for short periods, but the least wrinkle can send her into a tailspin. She is ashamed before Kess, and has written Sherry off. Everything, for Evelyn, depends on keeping Jo beside her.
Blessing has written two acts in which Evelyn, Kess, Jo and Sherry reopen old wounds and cause a few new ones. In her mid-fifties, Evelyn is still young enough to have a vibrant life ahead, but her demons have robbed her of any such future. She speaks of her husband (it is never stated that they are divorced, only that he walked out) with scorn, making references to his obvious infidelities, but still holds on to fond memories of times they shared. She knows there will be nothing like that again. Her life is heartbreaking, broken so early and hopelessly. But how much of it must her children inherit? What are they required to do in order to break free, to find independence?
Callie Meiners' direction is respectful of the pacing of life at home, in which things go slowlylike a game of Scrabble played by Evelyn and Kess, and the three sisters cavorting at home after coming back from watching the latest James Bond flick in the local movie theater. Things unspool in their natural time, until a burst of feeling explodes and everything is up for grabs again. The sense of uncertainty that lies below routine existence keeps them always on edge.
Four fine actors bring the Briggs women fully to life. Kim Greene, the program says, has recently returned to theater after a long hiatus, and what a powerful return it is. She has lovely but weathered looks, with a husky voice suggesting a rough life that perfectly suits Evelyn Briggs. We see her using excruciating effort to maintain her calm as emotions are about to overtake her, her forced sincerity when extending a kindness, her explosive anger, and her hopelessly naïve belief in the future she has charted out for herself and Jo. This performance is terrific, a wonderful surprise.
Ariel Leaf plays Kess with strength and resolve, always on guard to maintain the border she built between the life she forged for herself and the life she abandoned in Independence. She enters the play as if shielding herself from a house fire, but Leaf allows us to see her soften toward her sisters as she comes to know them in their present states, and even to show some tenderness toward her motherthough Kess never concedes control. Kira Pontiff makes Jo a wholly believable victim, with a lack of confidence and direction making her a sitting duck for her mother's unrelenting manipulation. Her Jo ever so cautiously takes steps to free herself, in turns doubtful and hopeful. Amanda Chial portrays Sherry as a total brat. She is smart-mouthed, immature, completely self-absorbed, and has figured out that neither her mother nor her town can control her. At the same time, Chial plays Sherry with enough intelligence and initiative for us to believe that she will find her way to a whole life.
Madeline Achen designed the Briggs' living room, where the entire play takes place, with comfy overstuffed furniture and homey trappingsa setting in contrast to the family living thereset in front of the open framework of the house's walls, on view to the world. Costumes, sound and light all complement the feel of this fragmented family and the stifling confinement of their house. The use of country music during scene transitions emphasizes the sentimentality one attributes to small-town life, in contrast to the harsh exchanges going on within the Briggs home.
This is an early Blessing play, and the narrative is not airtight, allowing several lapses in logic. We sense there was more going on than we are told the last time Kess saw her family, something terrible to have kept her away for four years. A big opportunity is offered to Sherry, but is cruelly degraded by Kess. Why would Kess, the most reasonable of the sisters, not check it out, rather than leap to a hurtful conclusion? We know that the girls' father left Evelyn, but hear nothing about his whereabouts. Is he available to his daughters? Maybe not, but it seems a reasonable question that is never asked. It is a given that Sherry is out the door the minute after she graduates, but where is she going and on whose dime? Questions like this make the situation feel less than fully authentic. At the same time, the fact that we ask them is a testament to the veracity of the characters Blessing has created and the truthfulness of the dialogue he has given them.
Independence pits the weight of family dynamics against the need for personal autonomy, giving the play's title a double meaning. Kess' withdrawal and Sherry's hedonism are as much a response to their drive for independence from the yoke of their mother's mental illness as is Jo's inertia. Certainly, Evelyn never achieved independence from her unrealized dreams and the illness that holds her emotions hostage. To a degree, all families face these issues, though not in such extreme measures, so even as Blessing depicts high-level dysfunction, aspects of the play may hit home for a good share of the audience. That prospect is aided tremendously by the sure direction and top drawer performances on stage. Independence is a great start for Chameleon's twentieth season.
Independence, a production of The Chameleon Theatre Circle, continues through November 12, 2017, in the Black Box Theater at Artistry, Bloomington Center for the Arts, 1800 West Old Shakopee Road, Bloomington, MN. Tickets: $25.00; Seniors and students: $22.00. For tickets call 952-232-0814 or go to www.chameleontheatre.org.
Playwright: Lee Blessing; Director: Callie Meiners; Scenic and Props Design: Madeline Achen; Costume Design: Lucas Grant Skjaret; Lighting Design: Ben Harvey; Sound Design: Forest Godfrey; Fight Choreographer: Meredith Kind; Stage Manager: Heather Burmeister; Executive Producer: Megan West.
Cast: Amanda Chial (Sherry), Kim Greene (Evelyn), Ariel Leaf (Kess), Kira Pontiff (Jo).