First time director Nathan St. Germain has taken on the task of putting Rachael Axler’s difficult play, Smudge, on the Play Ground stage, produced by Rubber Chicken Theater, for the next two weekends. For his first foray into the directing side of theatre, St. Germain is to be applauded for taking a sometimes absurdly constructed story fading in and out of naturalism and creating a provocative and thoughtful community theatre production that leaves one contemplative at the end. This is the aim and mission of experimental black box theatre at the Play Ground. And since this is the aim, despite the script’s difficulties, the cast hits the mark.
Smudge is a dark ninety-minute comedy focused around a young couple, Colby (Anna Vogt) and Nick (Keith Hursey). As she show opens, both are predictably excited about the impending birth of their first child. With a moment of tragic foreshadowing, Colby jokes that the ultrasound image of her baby looks like a smudge. Swiftly enough, Axler takes us down a path that requires a suspension of disbelief that nearly derails the entire show, were it not for the symbolism and intimate questions the script and the actors on stage require us to confront in our own minds and hearts.
Born to Colby and Nick is an ambiguously gendered (however, the couple determines the newborn is a girl named Cassandra) and deformed “child” with one hauntingly beautiful eye. The audience never sees a representation of the newborn, although the shocking visuals are represented in the dialogue and profound disappointment of Colby. Vogt is slow to warm up on stage in the beginning of the show, even though a certain degree of iciness and reserve is required of the character. But, later, it would only take a remarkably unfeeling person to not “get” Vogt’s interpretation of her character. What Vogt might lack for depth in the early moments of the show, she certainly makes up for later in poignant and, admittedly, uncomfortable moments of truth and regret she throws out there when at first ignoring and then confronting, full on, the enormity and horror of what she has produced for herself and her husband. At times shockingly cruel, the script written by Axler is taken by Vogt and transformed into a painful confrontation of the expected nurturing relationship between mother and child. As Colby denies, then confronts her disgust of the “child” in the crib at the center of her life, we are witness to the panoply of emotions that comes with feelings of her personal failure and the futility that comes with random acts of nature. For community theatre, it’s a demanding and difficult range for an actor. Vogt is a vessel for the complex emotional message and she does a fair job.
For his part as the father, Keith Hursey’s treatment of Nick is a dance of profound denial and realization. As his relationship with Colby spirals into the gulf between them over the treatment of their newborn, they are remarkably the same. It is obvious that both are horribly shocked and disappointed–Nick skirts questions about the baby fron his brother, Pete (Luke Moravec) and chastises Colby for her uncomfortably honest disgust and distance. Later in the play, however, Hursey does an honest job of conveying the character’s creeping acceptance of what’s wrong in both his marriage and with the child he expected to come into their lives. Both of them cross paths, emotionally, in the closing scenes of the play when they are both on the floor of their living room, fast-forwarding through the life of their idealized child. When they get to their ideal child having a baby, both Vogt and Hursey pause, jerked back into the reality of what lies in the crib just feet away from them. It is one of the more painful moments of the action on stage.
Luke Moravec provides the comic relief that is much needed in such an emotionally heavy script. As Nick’s brother, Pete, Moravec is energetic on stage and the most naturally believable of the three actors in his role.
Technically, the show is simple and should be that way. The life sustaining machine that is attached to Cassandra is a character in itself and the persistent beeps of the machine keep reminding the audience of the sadness and immediacy of the life at the center of the story, especially as Colby transforms it into her own defense and coping mechanism to block out yet confront the challenges and sadness ahead of her and her husband. There were a couple of lighting missteps in the opening night production, but, on balance, the technical aspects of the show were appropriate for the production.
Both the playwright and the performers are brave contenders in this show. It’s difficult to take something so symbolic and personal as the subject matter and characters in the written script and translate them honestly and poignantly to people sitting in the house seats. We should applaud directors and actors who take on that challenge in our community theatre, especially when the object of experimental theatre is to challenge, provoke, and inspire.
See this show.
SMUDGE. Written by Rachael Axler. Directed by Nathan St. Germain for Rubber Chicken Theater at The Play Ground,11 East Superior Street, Duluth. With Anna Vogt, Keith Hursey, and Luke Moravec. The production runs Thursday through Saturday through January 29. Curtain time: 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $10. This review is based on the Thursday, January 20, opening night performance.