Barbara Selfridge is a woman put-upon.
Her mother’s a non-feminist idiot whose sweet voice attempts to mask the dark sentiments of certain words. Her father’s an “asshole, asshole, asshole,” drunkard, diabetic lush and once brilliant mathematician whose old age pastimes include peeing on his shoes. And her older sister’s daily seizures condemn her to a locked mind and care facility. Thanks to a minor post-birth mishap at the hands of the idiot and the lush.
This one-woman show starts with something universal: each family dysfunction basks in its own kind of crazy.
Ms. Selfridge begins the tale of her brand of crazy by running up a set of steps in a hospital where her sister has just been admitted with a deadly rash. Facing the reality in which she was raised and lives, she calls her divorced parents from the hospital. During the next 60 minutes, she reflects on the path that led her to take control in her fifties away from inept parents and ailing siblings.
Zero Tolerance: Sex, Math and Seizures begs me to like it, but I just don’t. Let me back up. I don’t dislike Ms. Selfridge or what she has to say. It’s the form in which she tries to say it. I think her family diatribe better suited to a conversation between old friends catching-up over a TGI Friday meal on Sunday afternoon. And if I were her friend, I would have loved her story, welcomed the digressions, non-sequitors, and taken every opportunity to ask questions connecting both back to the point. In a black box venue, on a stage, the point often gets lost. I can’t ask questions, and the art accompanying the storytelling I expect to see never arrives.
The pinnacle of Ms. Selfridge’s story is set in 2000, but she jumps from the 1950s, to the 60s, to the 80s, to the 90s to the 70s and from New York to Florida to Oregon to California. A theme around prime numbers emphasized in the beginning drops off. Wait, now we are at a Social Worker’s conference.
This would have been better as a written memoir where chapter headings tip off location or time changes, and the author can let the reader savor facts and fit the ironies of woe together without having to be told how to feel. And tell us, she does. Multiple times. I felt begged for empathy.
While she is painfully self-aware, Ms. Selfridge is not self-assured—refusing to trust her audiences to deduce facts or emote on their own, not confident of her storytelling abilities and undecided on whether she has prepared to deliver a stand-up comedy routine, reader’s theatre show, or something altogether different.
She is likable enough and says some lovely and all-encompassing things : “No daughter should have to play old prude to her sexually‘liberated’ father.” Her reiteration of her sister’s definition of heaven is spot-on. When she drops the comedy routine shtick, she finally wades through her child-like bitterness and becomes a woman confident in what she knows about life and family dysfunction. Then she shines, for a second.
At that point, she recounts seeing a dog paralyzed on the side of highway I-80. A powerful moment follows on the horror of seizures. How a person lost in one’s storm looks to those they love. Locking eyes, they plead for you to find the right words to free them, to beckon them back from beyond.
Powerful stuff. Too bad every other moment waned, deeply, in comparison.
Zero Tolerance has 5 performances, ending July 28, 2012 at Caos on F, 923 F St NW, Washington, DC.
Details and tickets
Kelly rates this 2 out of a possible 5.