In Jami Brandli’s Technicolor Life, Maxine Hunter (Isa Guitan) is a precocious ninth grader with a passion for SAT words and troublemaking friends, but she has more on her plate than the typical highschooler: her philandering father is marrying his much-younger girlfriend, her cheerfully dying grandmother has moved in, her sister has returned from Iraq severally wounded, and her mother is not handling any of it well.
Maxine tries to escape into a world introduced to her by her grandmother, Franny (Valerie Lash)- the lavish Technicolor world of the 1950s movie musical. With the help of her new imaginary friends, Dorothy Shaw and Lorelei Lee (Shea-Mikal Green and Heather Lynn Peacock) from the 1953 film Gentleman Prefer Blondes, Maxine secretly sets up a profile for her withdrawn and angry sister Billie (Shayna Blass) on an online-dating site for wounded warriors. Just as Maxine thinks she has rigged a happy ending, Franny announces that her cancer has returned and wants her family to throw her a lavish party at which she will end her own life.
The heart and soul of Technicolor Life is the relationship between Maxine and Billie. Maxine struggles with how much her sister has changed and how Billie does not act like the “war hero” Maxine expected to return home, while Billie is fighting to deal with the injuries, both physical and emotional, that she never expected to get when she joined the Army.
The relationship between the two sisters is expertly written; Maxine is a very real 14-year-old in a way that is seldom well done on stage or screen, and Billie’s dialogue reflects the words, phrases, and attitude that she would have picked up while deployed in Iraq. The performances by Isa Guitan and Shayna Blass are also fantastic. Blass’s Billie is hard, mean, and broken, but the audience is still able to see that somewhere, deep inside, the idealistic woman who joined the Army to become a Major General still exists. Isa Guitan (actually a high school junior!) handles the massive job of carrying the entire show, as narrator and central figure, with skill; she never makes Maxine too young or too naïve, but still allows her innocence to shine through.
October 21 – November 8
10901 Little Patuxent Parkway
Columbia, MD 21044
2 hours, 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $14 – $40
Thursdays thru Sundays
The difficulty with Technicolor Life is that there seem to be too many plots for the play’s two hours. Although Franny’s struggle with her end of life plans and the difficulties Maxine and Billie’s mother Susan (Grace Bauer) has with her ex-husband and personal self-esteem would have been fascinating in another play, in Technicolor Life, they distract from the truly compelling story of Billie and Maxine. The added device of Maxine’s broad, charicaturesque imaginary friends makes the play seem overstuffed, and, although Heather Lynn Peacock gives a funny, commendable performance, it is a mistake to ever ask any actress to play Marilyn Monroe (I believe this was the premise of the short-lived television series Smash.)
Despite its troubles, Technicolor Life is worth seeing for the truly moving story of two sisters trying to process the trauma of war together. The flashback scenes to Billie’s time in Iraq are a wonderfully evocative device that brings the audience into the plight of active duty female soldiers. A series of great performances also makes up for the sprawling script; in addition to Guitan and Blass, Valerie Lash is hilariously eccentric as the sisters’ old-fashioned, movie loving grandmother. Thony Mena is exceedingly likeable as Jake, the wounded vet Billie is tricked into meeting (Mena also plays Billie’s fellow solider and boyfriend Peter in flashback.) Despite its flaws, Technicolor Life is worth seeing for its performances and the touching story of the two sisters.
Technicolor Life by Jamie Brandli . Directed by Joseph W. Ritsch . Featuring Isa Guitan, Shayna Blass, Grace Bauer, Valerie Lash, Thony Mena, James Whalen, She-Mikal Green, and Heather Lynn Peacock . Set Design: Daniel Ettinger . Lighting Design: Dan Covey . Associate Light Design: William K. D’Eugenio . Sound Design: Bryan Schlein . Costume Design: Benjamin Argenta Kress. Properties Design: Mollie Singer. Production Stage Manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Assistant Stage Manager: Niew Bharyaguntra. Dramaturg: Lisa Wilde . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Jessica Pearson.