No longer do we need to shudder to think what Blanche DuBois from A Streetcar Named Desire and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf would be like as mothers.
The Tennessee Williams and Edward Albee damaged dames, respectively, have been rolled into one unhinged harridan —albeit one with a posh English accent—in British playwright Polly Stenham’s 2007 play That Face, an intense baptism of Baltimore Center Stage’s new Third Space, a 99-seat black box theater.
In such a small space, we can’t escape from the gin-soaked clutches of Martha (Leenya Rideout) a mother of two in name only. To say she’s an unhappy divorcee is like saying Medea had a bit of a short fuse when it came to her kids.
Martha adores her 18-year-old son Henry (Josh Tobin) in an unhealthy, pervy way. Mornings find her hungover and chain-smoking, lolling around in bed with Henry, who has dropped out of school to take care of his alcoholic, plainly crackers mother. For all his pains, he’s totally unprepared to handle her illness and her manipulation—slinking around like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’s Maggie in a white slip one minute and the next cutting up all his clothes when he stays out late like a normal teenager.
Their cozy codependency is the crux of That Face and the lurid awfulness of their relationship comes to harsh light after daughter Mia (Emily Juliette Murphy) does something that forces Martha not to ignore her anymore. Mia, a chip off the old twisted block, went too far in a hazing ritual at her boarding school.
Pumping the 13-year-old Alice (Madison Fae) full of Valium before being terrorized and sexually assaulted by head mean girl Izzy (Sarah Nichole Deaver), Mia faces expulsion after her victim is rushed to hospital. Hugh (Patrick Boll), the remote father, must fly in from Hong Kong to try to fix things.
It is no accident that director Johanna Gruenhut has the audience grouped around the square stage as if witnessing a boxing match. We’re uncomfortably close to the toxicity given off by these characters.
That Face, written by Stenham when she was only 19, was a sensation in London when it premiered and you can see how audiences would be revved up by the shocking subject matter and the play’s jagged meanness. You’re unsettled from the opening scene, which looks like a terrorist act until you notice the torturers are wearing schoolgirl uniforms.
Scene after scene contains the roiling, erratic, raging energy of youth. It’s one long, rebellious spew to the point where it all seems like a melodramatic adolescent diatribe blaming mother for everything.
The ensemble goes for the jugular throughout, from the desperate sexual preening of Deaver’s Izzy and Mia’s tomboyish vulnerability to Fae’s bruised and baffled Alice. Rideout’s Martha is a languorous mess, still dangerously seductive and compelling even as her drunkenness deepens.
In contrast, Boll’s Hugh is all stiffness and unbending compulsion to make things right. As Henry, Tobin artfully handles showiest part as the damaged, crazily dutiful son. It is almost unbearable to watch him succumb to his mother’s charms and chafe against them.
That Face is a potboiler for sure, but its most affecting moments come when it’s quiet—the look in Mia’s eyes when she realizes her mother never, ever loved her; Martha saying goodbye to her beloved son, ragged and regal as she walks away from her only reason to live.
That Face had a short run at Baltimore Center Stage, closing April 23, 2017.
That Face By Polly Stenham . Featuring: Patrick Boll, Sarah Nicole Deaver, Madison Fae, Emily Juliette Murphy, Leenya Rideout, Josh Tobin. Director: Johanna Gruenhut. Scenic Designer: Ryan Michael Haase. Costume Designer: Sarah Cubbage. Lighting Designer: Jane Chan. Sound Designer: Veronica J. Lancaster. Production Dramaturg: Deanie Vallone. Stage Manager: Kristin Loughry. Produced by Baltimore Center Stage . Reviewed by Jayne Blanchard.