Things that are Round, Callie Kimball’s fine new play getting its world premiere at Rep Stage, could, with justice, be called Things that are Delusional, for it is the power and authority of things which are not true and not real which do the hard work of the play. It begins with an ordinary interview by the nervous, defensive dentist Tetherly (Beth Hylton) of a potential nanny for her four-year-old deaf child, Dylan. The interviewee, Nina (Thais Menendez) is bitter and cynical; she has recently been laid off from her job as a paralegal, and wants — nay, thinks she is entitled to — a job with full medical and other benefits. But her real objective, we soon learn, is to be a great opera singer, and so her tenure in this job — if she’s hired — will be short.
Notwithstanding, Tetherly senses in Nina the solution to her problems, and so presses her offer on Nina. Tetherly brings out Dylan — and we suddenly learn that Dylan faces a challenge far more difficult than mere deafness. Under the circumstances, no rational person would accept Tetherly’s offer — but Tetherly couples it with $500 a week, for twenty hours, and Nina is a practical woman.
They are, we discover, both in a casual relationship with reality. Nina tells Tetherly a made-up version of La Boheme, involving forced cross-dressing. Tetherly shows Nina a collection of her patients’ teeth, and makes up stories about them.
Their relationship with each other, sometimes fraught, sometimes loving, unfolds before us. We learn things. Nina herself has a child: two-year-old Aria, who she — let’s not beat around the bush — despises. She also has a husband, nicknamed Isosceles (because he can see two equal sides to every argument), of whom her opinion is not much better. She believes that opera is her destiny, and longs one day to study in New York in preparation for her debut at the Met.
Things that are Round
closes November 18, 2018
Details and tickets
Tetherly’s story is a little darker. She is purposefully vague about Dylan’s father. Her dental practice is dwindling and she is having problems with patient dissatisfaction. The reason for this dissatisfaction is soon obvious: she is a horrible dentist. When she performs a routine cleaning on Nina (a procedure which a dental assistant usually does) she fills her nanny’s mouth with blood.
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In fact, looking at Tetherly (her nickname as a kid, she reveals, was tether-ball) we can see signs of a recently-developed mental disorder. She is wealthy; her home is lovely (nice scenic design, Daniel Ettinger) and she has no trouble coming up with $500 cash every week for Nina. But her condition is deteriorating rapidly; she is losing her patients, and those who remain are talking to their lawyers.
Among Tetherly’s profound delusions (but not, by a long shot, her most profound) is that she is about to obtain her PhD in mathematics, based on her work on the theory of monadology. This is Gottfried Leibnitz’s 18th century belief that all substances are composed of spherical monads. To Leibnitz, the monads are real but the substances are not; neither are space and time. Tetherly has used this theory, she explains to Nina as she tortures her with her dental cleaning, to calculate the number of souls there are, living or dead, at any particular point in time. Rather than take this as further evidence of Tetherly’s lunacy, Nina treats it as a serious proposal, even offering a thoughtful critique.
In the October 8 issue of The New Yorker, Larissa MacFarquhar writes about two competing schools of thought about how to deal with dementia patients. One philosophy is to try to ground the patients in the truth, however painful it is, and however resistant they are. The other is to support them in their delusions, affirming whatever mistaken belief they have about time, place and identity, in order to secure their temporary happiness.
Nina and Tetherly are definitely of the latter school. They support each other’s delusions to the extent they can consistent with their own needs, until they reach a conclusion which, oddly, may remind you of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
Things that are Round has no driving narrative question — no real dilemma to be solved other than whether the characters’ willingness to accept each other’s delusions has any limit. That does not necessarily defeat the art; Virginia Woolf had no strong narrative question either (except, maybe, how low can you go?). But the lack of a compelling story line does require that the dialogue be strong and the characters well-drawn, or else we will lose interest. While the dialogue is not as powerful as Edward Albee’s, it is sufficient to keep us engaged for the play’s 90-minute duration.
Callie Kimball was a Washington, D.C. playwright — and a good one — before being a D.C. playwright was cool. After successful mountings of her adaptations of The Rape of Lucrece and Peace, she decided to perfect her art by moving to New York and studying under the great Tina Howe. As a result, her writing, always clever and original, now has the potential to become significant as well. You can see Howe’s influence, as well as that of another powerful contemporary playwright, Sheila Callaghan.
In addition to reacquainting DMV audiences with Kimball’s writing, Things that are Round gives us an opportunity to watch the work of a dynamic new actor, Thais Menendez. Menendez, who to date has principally been on the smaller stages, nails Nina as a savvy young woman whose fierce self-confidence is unmoored from any moral sense or, for that matter, reality. Menendez establishes at the outset a convincing relationship with the veteran Hylton, who does her customary strong work in this play.
For all her self-confidence, Nina has a moment of doubt before she sings to Tetherly (and thus to us). She sings nonetheless. Her resolve to go to New York and study is probably well placed. With luck and a good teacher, she might end up as successful as Callie Kimball is.
Things that are Round, by Callie Kimball . Directed by Lola B. Pierson . Featuring Beth Hulton and Thais Menendez . Scenic design: Daniel Ettinger . Costume design: Heather C. Jackson . Lighting design: Sarah Tondermann . Composition and sound design: Sarah O’Halloran . Properties design Amy Kellett . Residential movement and fight director: Jenny Male . Dramaturg: Lisa A. Wilde . Production stage manager: Julie DeBakey Smith . Produced by Rep Stage . Reviewed by Tim Treanor.
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