The Arcturus Theater Company tackles a challenging subject in Full Bloom, Suzanne Bradbeer’s coming-of-age story that takes us into the life of Phoebe Harris, a New York City teenager confronting a sudden onslaught of sexual attention as she matures from a girl into an attractive young woman.
When the play opens, Phoebe has just returned from a summer in Italy to find that her father has left her mother, Jane, for a much younger woman. While she is thoughtful, intelligent, and has much to say, Phoebe barely shares any of her feelings to her mother and their close friends and neighbors, Crystal and Jim, despite their attempts to get her to open up.
Instead, the conflicting thoughts swirling in her head are revealed in a series of monologues interspersed throughout the play that astutely and innocently capture a young woman dealing with questions of self-worth and society’s obsession with beauty.
Sixteen-year-old Kyra Soleil is a standout as Phoebe, brilliantly taking on the voice and stance of a closed-off teenager who is also honest about her experiences. Through those monologues, Phoebe shares her views on her childhood, her first date, being ogled by men, and the pain of her father’s absence.
Meanwhile, we watch as her mother (Alison Bauer) deals with the breakup of her marriage and Crystal (Christine Callsen), an actress, considers plastic surgery, despite her husband Jim’s (Peter J. Orvetti) objections. We also see a burgeoning romance as Phoebe meets and converses with Jesse, played by 17-year-old Noah Harrington, an equally smart and thoughtful boy in her neighborhood.
Harrington and Soleil share a wonderful chemistry and Harrington’s Jesse brings fresh energy and optimism to an otherwise sad play. Bauer also gives a believable performance as a preoccupied middle-aged mother dealing with the sudden end of a marriage, aided by the comic and poignant timing of Callsen’s Crystal.
Director Daniel Bumgardner has done a commendable job, particularly in some interesting ways of presenting dialogue between two characters while both face the audience. Every part of Stephen Strosnider’s beautiful set design is also utilized, from a balcony landing, to the front stoop, and character entrances and exits that take place inches from the audience. Be sure to keep an eye on the stage during the 15-minute intermission as well, as Soleil sets up action for the second half of the play.
But great sets, interesting direction, and fine performances can’t plug the holes in Bradbeer’s play. And there are many. For one, much of the play’s action does little to add to the story line. It often felt as though Phoebe’s monologues were the story while everything outside of them just served as a timing device or transition to the next monologue.
Phoebe’s experiences are so compelling and gut-wrenching that it was a letdown to constantly return to watching humdrum scenes of Jane and Crystal getting drunk, or Jane and Jim talking about her ex-husband, or Phoebe and Jesse talk about baseball.
Compare that to Phoebe’s monologue where she talks about a clay animal she made for her father when she was a child. Describing the figurine as having an anticipating expression and distinct character she concludes: “If you gave something to your dad, something you made when you were six that was sweet and distinct, don’t you think you should take it with you when you go? ”
Or a terrifying experience Phoebe had in Italy when she was followed by several older men: “They forced me into a sides street and surrounded me… They were looking me up and down, I couldn’t breathe and then it dawned on me that they were admiring me, that I should feel complimented. They never touched me, they were just admiring me. That’s good right?”
Or a nightmare she had that the moon (her namesake) crashes into the earth and her last thought was that at least she would die pretty: “I used to want to be Harriet Tubman, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, or Joan of Arc. In this dream I just wanted to be pretty.”
While the non-monologue portions of the play attempt to show how prevailing these views on beauty are through Crystal’s want for plastic surgery, Jane’s feelings of being left for a younger woman, and Jim’s experience seeing men leer at Phoebe, but it’s hard to see how Phoebe internalizes these events.
Closes August 24, 2013
Arcturus Theatre at
All Souls Memorial Episcopal Church
2300 Cathedral Ave NW
2 hours with 1 intermission
Thursday thru Saturday
While the play deftly captures those heartbreaking moments in the life of a female teenager that many adult women can remember — those moments when a cat call or a look from a stranger suddenly forces you to realize you are being viewed and treated differently because of your looks — it fails to give Phoebe the moxie we are led to believe she has.
When she screams at her mother and friends to “Stop looking at me,” towards the end of the play, it feels untrue, especially since it’s clear that she is loved by her mother, neighbors, and Jesse — not because of her looks but because of who she is. From the moment the audience meets Phoebe, we too like her for her smarts, creativity, and thoughtfulness, so much so that it’s hard to even believe she’s so objectified by others.
Someone as bright and sincere and as loved as Phoebe would have far more confidence than the story line allows her. How hard would it be to let her tell some of those leering jerks to go to hell?
Full Bloom by Suzanne Bradbeer . Directed by Daniel Bumgardner. Featuring Kyra Soleil, Noah Harrington, Alison Bauer, Christine Callsen, and Peter J. Orvetti. Scenic, properties, and lighting design: Stephen Strosnider, costume design: Adalia Vera Tonneyck, makeup: Christine Wasilewski, stage management: Ross Heath. Produced by Arcturus Theatre Company. Reviewed by Lisa Chiu.