The Magic Tree sounds like the title of a children’s play, but consider that the first of several times that Irish playwright Ursula Rani Sarma plays with the audience’s expectations. Some of the initial twists are captivating in this gloomy drama making its American premiere as part of the Women’s Voice’s Theater Festival. Yet despite a fine Keegan Theatre production, after a vivid first act, the play seems to lose its way.
“It was a dark and stormy night” – to use the famous and oft-mocked opening line by English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton – when Lamb (Brianna Letourneau) breaks into an empty house seeking shelter. She is soon joined by Gordy (Chris Stinson), a nervous and awkward Irish lad who has followed Lamb from the local town.
Gordy, we learn, is a bit of a social misfit whose generalizations about women, love, violence, and sex do little to attract Lamb, who just broke up with her boyfriend because she wants a more normal relationship. Yet Gordy and Lamb start to develop a rapport that seems to signal a “meet cute” opening for two lonely souls seeking a connection.
However, Gordy’s presence there is much more planned than you might first think. He is following orders from Doc (Scott Ward Abernathy) and Lenny (Ryan Tumulty), the nature of which gives added meaning and irony to conversations between the couple both before and after the audience learns the true situation.
The immature and vulnerable Gordy becomes uncomfortable with the plan as he starts to learn more about Lamb. Yet the group’s menacing leader Doc insists that the men proceed with their orders after Gordy gets Lamb drunk. Neither Gordy nor Lenny seem to have the will to resist the psychopathic, violent Doc and the plan approaches the point of consummation.
Just when the audience is rooting for the redemptive power of love at first sight, Lamb learns a secret that drives the two even farther apart. Yet as far-fetched as the whole incipient relationship seems to be, they ultimately wind up fleeing together to Cambodia.
At this point the play starts to fall apart. A visit to a memorial to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge massacres helps both feel even more haunted by regretted past actions. Gordy clings to his puppyish affection for Lamb as the two struggle to overcome the darkness, but Lamb questions whether he really knows her at all (a sentiment shared by the audience).
THE MAGIC TREE
Part of the Women’s Voices Theater Festival
October 10 – November 13, 2015
1742 Church Street NW
Washington, DC 20036
2 hours with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $36
Details and Tickets
It is a shame that the play is not more successful given the serious effort and professionalism Keegan brings to the production. The cast members all give interesting portrayals. Brianna Letourneau makes Lamb a compelling and complex young woman, Chris Stinson adeptly balances youthful awkwardness with dawning affection. Scott Ward Abernathy is a chillingly violent and intimidating young thug, and Ryan Tumulty is convincing as a reluctant follower with a surprising sense of innocence.
Similarly co-directors Matthew J. Keenan and Colin Smith lead the artistic team in maintaining an appropriately ominous and haunting tone throughout the story. The impressionist set (Robbie Hayes) supports the somber story and converts from a building to an outdoor background at intermission.
Ursula Rani Sarma is an award-winning writer for stage and screen. She is skilled at effective dialogue and exploring the human psyche. Yet after an intriguing start, The Magic Tree feels strained.
The Magic Tree by Ursula Rani Sarma . Directed by Matthew J. Keenan and Colin Smith . Featuring Brianna Letourneau, Chris Stinson, Scott Ware Abernety and Ryan Tumulty . Scenic Design: Robbie Hayes . Lighting Design: G Ryan Smith . Sound Design: Tony Angelini . Projection Design: Patrick Lord . Costume Design: Kelly Peacock . Fight Choreographer: Casey Kaleba . Hair and Make up: Craig Miller . Set Dressing and Properties Carol H. Baker . Produced by The Keegan Theatre . Reviewed by Steven McKnight.
Running time: 2 hours (one intermission)
Rating of the show: 3