What happens to a young woman whose childhood is a funhouse mirror chamber of horrors and who grows up with no sense of self and no grasp of the value of human life? Meet Lisa (Mary Myers), a 16 year old Southern girl, the heartrending anti-heroine of Rebecca Gilman’s play The Glory of Living.
The small-scale Strand Theater Company, under the compassionate direction of Jayme Kilburn, has revived Miss Gilman’s (Spinning into Butter, Boy Gets Girl) 1998 play with chilling effect. This is not the kind of theatrical experience where you emerge brimming with optimism and bonhomie for your fellow man. Instead, you curse a society where young girls are treated like rag dolls and then vilified for aberrant behavior.
Lisa is one of those women where the odds were probably stacked up against her in the womb. The product of a mother (Mattie Rogers) who prostitutes herself to passing truckers via the CB radio, Lisa is forced to listen to her mother’s feigned cries of ecstasy as she entertains customers a few feet away from the living room TV. During one of these visits—where the sex act is depicted by flopping legs and bedroom slippers peeking out from under a hot pink canopy—Lisa is seduced by the seemingly empathetic Clint (R. Brett Rohrer), the kind of redneck bad boy responsible mothers warn their daughters about.
Fast forward a couple of years to a seedy motel room in the South. Lisa and Clint are cozily shacked up in bed while a young girl is shackled to the end table. After giving birth to twins and enduring a generally crappy life on the lam with Clint, Lisa is reduced to kidnapping teenage girls for her husband’s sexual pleasure. After Clint has had his fill, Lisa murders them—as casually as if she’s dropping off a DVD at Red Box.
After one of the victims manages to escape, Lisa is arrested for the string of killings. Clint, holding true to his weasel-y ways, pins the rap on his wife, who faces Death Row and execution. The only shred of tenderness in this play comes from her court-appointed attorney (Chris Poverman), who, in a lovely scene of eleventh hour connection, teaches Lisa how to play the toy piano—a gift from her dead father she clutches like a life preserver.
Miss Gilman’s approach to potentially sensational topics is unique. The portrayals of abuse, sexual opportunism and serial killings do not come from a creepy, peeping Tom angle. In fact, Miss Gilman’s is matter of fact, almost composed in her depiction of Lisa’s short, brutish life, scrupulously avoiding Southern stereotypes as well. Similarly, Miss Kilburn honors the playwright’s perspective, never exploiting the actors or the depraved situations the characters find themselves in. You are drawn in deeper by this careful detachment than if the various acts were exposed luridly, as other productions of The Glory of Living have done.
The performances are equally watchful, starting with the hollow-eyed Miss Myers as Lisa. Constantly gnawing on her fingers as if the cause for all of her compulsions lies under her skin, Miss Myers is a compelling Lisa. She sees her as so shut down that Lisa becomes a blank surface for people to heap their exploit and abuse upon. Once in awhile we are allowed to see the flashes of anger and willfulness—even humor—that hint at the real Lisa she keeps so vigilantly hidden from human eyes.
Whitney St. Ours makes a striking impression as a possibly mentally challenged victim who cheerfully, trustingly goes to her doom. Mr. Poverman’s subtlety in the final scene renders what could have been a Hallmark moment into something far more real.
This excellent production has one minor quibble. Each scene is punctuated by music, notably the Talking Heads’ “Take Me to The River” and Jace Everett’s “I Want to Do Bad Things to You.” The gratingly repetitive song snippets dilute the potential power of the scenes about to unfold.
The Glory of Living
by Rebecca Gilman
directed by Jayme Kilburn
produced by The Strand Theater Company
reviewed by Jayne Blanchard