Crestfall, currently playing at Studio Theatre’s Secondstage, written by brazen young Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe fulfills the historical legacy of rock solid story telling, cut with a piercingly modern and urban edge. The individual stories are told by three highly accomplished actresses monologue style with no interaction among them, but the stories themselves describe aspects of shared characters, so that they seem grafted to each other, each dependent on the other for the full picture of what happened one day, with the last character delivering the crushing blow in the finale. The monologues provide a rare opportunity to see the amazing stretch of two of the finest women actors in the metro region joined by a young newcomer from New York to fill out this gritty ensemble.
Joy Zinoman is on a red hot roll having recently directed two pieces by brash young playwrights brandishing powerful passages filled with brutality and vulgarity wrapped in sexual prowess, with Crestfall possibly winning the “not for the squeamish” award. The language stings like a bitch-slap (all the women get roughed up a bit to say the least) and once you get past the unfamiliar sounds and cadence of the language (beautifully articulated by Jennifer Mendenhall as Olive Day the first character), you find yourself sucked into the brutal lower social strata with liberal use of the “f-word” wrapped in stunningly imaginative poetry. Mendenhall plays Olive with a deliberate swagger and strut that must be seen to be believed. A woman of her own mind, she makes no bones about having done half the guys in town but accepts a cheerful morning wave from a group of them as an affirmation of respect and her worth. Very uncharacteristic of her, she’s had a child, “Poppin’ Eye.” Listen carefully and you’ll notice her disparaging passing reference to a drugged out Tilly, who connects the dots in the devastating conclusion.
In the middle passage, Alison Ellis, skillfully rendered by Kimberly Schraf, sans pretense or makeup, is truly crestfallen, unkept and even a bit smelly at times, but not totally down and out. Schraf delivers touching passages about being a wife and mother, watching helplessly while her child Philip gets sucked into the throttling engine of brutality and meanness as a rite of passage. It is during this section that O’Rowe’s language takes on piercing urgency as Alison watches helplessly, screaming Philip’s name in the surging crowd, the only one admonishing him while everyone else, including his father, urge him on strike the final death blows to a tortured and dying horse. Towards the end of that passage, the writing shifts and Allison takes bold, redemptive steps to connect with her husband in love, affection, and even bits tenderness.
Finally, Mari Howells delivers a tour-de-force performance as the drugged out on “scourge” (presumably crack) Tilly McQuarrie. Fresh from her New York portrayal of Tilly, with roots in the UK (Wales), Howells brings a harrowing depth and sensitivity to the role. Through the text, her movements, expressions and mannerisms, every bit of her being is consumed with finding paying customers and delivering tricks to get the scourge, shooting it up intravenously, nodding off from it, or coming to long enough to explain what happens at the apocalyptic end of the day. Howells balances the ensemble and anchors the entire piece in the scary hidden crevices of a new dark reality-it’s a blazingly bold and chilling experience.
The press packet indicates that O’Rowe’s current theater project, Terminus, is “written in his characteristic dark, explosive verse and explores the shadow world of demons.” It’s enough to make you wonder what goes on in the mind of such ferocious talent, and to pray for the fortitude to handle whatever he dishes out next.
Crestfall runs through November 12th at Studio Theatre (Stage 4), 1501 14th Street. Showtimes: Wednesday-Saturday 8:30 pm, Sundays at 7:30. Tickets: $29. Call 202-332-3300 www.studiotheatre.org