Unlike garden variety sleeplessness, the sinister version of insomnia featured in A Sleeping Country is so devastating to the brain and well being, that it has a name, is genetically transferred through generations, and carries a death sentence. So much for a light hearted siesta at the theater. As playwright Melanie Marnich’s script shows, there’s a fine line between hilarity and somber reality. Considering that the script is rather light with limited heft or fully realized character exploration, then you may as well enjoy a joke or two in the deal because as a fellow D.C. reviewer is fond of stating, “there’s not much ‘there’ there.”
Susan Lynskey does what she can with the material as Julia, the insomniac who is a casebook study of sleep deprivation. Not having slept a wink for months, Julia has reached the end of her rope, almost literally, and bares her soul to her therapist friend Dr. Midge, played with ghoulish relish by Connan Morrissey. Midge is a casebook study of therapists behaving badly, succumbs to her share of addictions, including sexual, and has a wanton disregard for any kind of professional propriety in dispensing bad advice and controlled substances which she stashes away for rainy days and pops like Pez candy. Playwright Marnich goes for broad humor when sketching out the friend/therapist character, and Morrissey goes for the gusto while sporting some seriously stylish ankle boots. The to-die-for shoe fetish (costumes by Catherine F. Norgren) also hits Julia who commandeers around the set in garnet red, beautifully heeled Manolo looking pumps. That’s probably not a good sign when the footwear steals the spotlight.
Marcus Kyd is rather wasted in his role of TV-sketch writer, caring fiancée, trying desperately to keep his own sanity while Julia keeps him awake. “I said I love you and always will, but I can’t be with you if you won’t let me sleep,” he protests, before relenting and hunkering down with her protectively. That’s the extent of his comforting side kick role, not unlike the traditional dutiful wife. The tables have turned where the female protagonist heads out on the adventure that the man usually takes. In this case, Julia is determined to meet her possible long lost Italian relatives who have the same exotic sleep depriving symptoms that she has. It’s just that the beginning is so tiring, and the negligent therapist so off-putting, that it’s hard to really care for the quest.
That is, until Julia gets to Venice and connects with her potential generations-removed cousin, Countess Isabella Orsini. “This is the woman my soul was born to find,” she whispers,” and what a treat for a character deprived audience. The scenes are so refreshing and quirky, as if Marnich splashed herself awake and downed a cup-a-joe. Brigid Cleary’s Isabella perks up her scenes, dressed to the nines and with exaggerated, elongated utterance, her butchered Italiano punch lines, leering facial expressions, her pronounced waltz-like movements, down to her quickie booty-pop to the bouncy cell telephone ring. She’s a magnanimous piece of work and brings the piece to life. In a duo-role now as a trusty butler, Marcus Kyd finally has something to work with and kicks up the interest level a notch, in 18th century European attire down to the wig and waist coast, even though he’s so silent at first you wonder if he’s mute as he attends to Isabella’s every need with tenderness and care. But when he does have a line or two, they are written with such genuine feeling and delivered with such purposeful dead-on delivery, that their sweet relationship snaps into place in an instant, unlike the floundering couple in the first act.
The functional set by James Kronzer works, but, like the shoes, it’s fanciful and elaborate, spinning to accommodate the two settings, as if the play is bigger than it actually is. There’s a creative moment at the end of the first Act when Julia takes her stand to leave despite the cost to her relationship, then the upper right corner of the set opens and the Italian counterparts appear as in a premonition of fun things to come, which they thankfully do.
Award winning writer Marnich is no light-weight; she currently writes for HBO’s highly successful “Big Love, ” and has been described as “one of the freshest, most innovative voices in American theater … her unique language creates an evening of art, emotion and poetic magic.” Potential for that magic is still possible, since this is just the second staging of the piece, so it’s still finding its way. The premise is interesting, albeit tricky to tackle, and Marnich has a personal fascination with “Fatal Familial Insomnia,” an actual orphan disease contained in one Italian family. We’ll see if this second showing will help her apply her sizeable talents to prevent the potential for a sleeping audience.
A Sleeping Country
by Melanie Marnich
directed by Gregg Henry
produced by Round House Theatre
reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
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