The intimate Venus Theatre performance space has been cleverly transformed into an old attic by Joe Musemeci. The seemingly low hanging rafters make you feel like stooping. The space is filled with the castoffs of the Diamond family of Ridgwood, NJ: old books, maps, a wardrobe with clothes, even your seats are their mismatched chairs, set along three sides of the room.
A hatch bangs open, and enter 13 year old Isabelle (Kelsey Painter), and her 16 year old brother Luce (Jay Saunders) playing a game of “pretend”. But make believe isn’t always fun, and for these children and their older sister Matilda (Robin Covington) “Pretend is for figuring things out.” Welcome to the world premiere thriller Play Nice by Robin Rice Lichtig where, in the confines of the attic and the wider world of their imaginations, these children and a street vagrant Joanie (Hayab Hussain) must learn what happened to Mummy, and, even as Mummy’s heavy steps sound on the stairs, figure out their escape.
Director Lee Mikeska Gardner, ably assisted by sound designer Neil McFadden, has created a chilling, well-paced production. The tension ratchets up scene by scene, with most of the acting credit going to relative newcomer Kelsey Painter who turns in an excellent performance as Isabelle, the hyperactive youngest child. Robin Covington is convincing as the oldest child trying to protect her sister. Jay Saunders plays their brother Luce with an obsessive intensity. And Nayab Hussain gives a solid performance as Joanie, not withstanding the fact that it’s not clear whether her character is real or a fantasy.
This world premiere also marks the first time Washington theatregoers have had the chance to see the work of playwright Robin Rice Lichtig. The ultimate resolution of Play Nice! was a bit confusing, something the writer may want to revisit, and the flow between reality, flashback and childish imagination was slightly disorienting. But, her gift for unique plotting – she brings us a fifth character in the play, acted out by the children – her penchant for weaving fantasy with reality, her lyrical language – at one point, the make believe games evolve into poetry – makes her a writer whose work we hope to see again.
Congratulations to Venus Theatre for this excellent production. It’s well worth a trip to the Venus Theatre Play Shack in Laurel, MD.
by Robin Rice Lichtig
directed by Lee Mikeska Gardner
produced by Venus Theatre
reviewed by Ted Ying
Play Nice! runs thru Sept 26, 2010.
Click here for details, directions and tickets.
Gwendolyn Glenn . Howard Times