Extremitiesby William Mastrosimone. Directed by Karen Allen.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"The truth? Why didn’t you say so?"
Three women share a rustic, though remodeled, farm house in a suburban community somewhere outside of New York City. Unbeknownst to them there is a stalker who has flagged them. One day, on a trumped up tale, he pays them a visit and makes his rapist movements on one of them. Unbeknownst to him, he has chosen the wrong one.
You are informed by ushers as you enter the Unicorn Theatre on the grounds of the Berkshire Theatre Festival in Stockbridge, MA (part of the Berkshire Theatre Group) that no one may leave the theater during the first act and that no one may be seated during the first seventeen minutes of the show. That is because of the scenario described above. The extremes of fear and of loathing pervade the theater; the extreme, a word that no longer needs defining, reactions fill the stage for the next two hours. This is not a play for sissies and director Karen Allen knows it - she played the role of Marjorie for a time during this play’s initial production, Marjorie the victim, Marjorie the virago, Marjorie the human being who is denied that position among her peers by everyone she knows.
The manipulation of the mind is a much more severe crime than the manipulation of another person’s body. The extremities to which this simple theory is played with in this play is what its all about. Marjorie’s anger is intensified beyond control. Terry’s terrors are exploded in actual terror. Patricia’s smarts hurt everyone around her and finally injure herself. Raul’s blind rush into criminal acts result in the blind leading the literal blind. No one is safe when all human interaction is pushed to the extreme. Concerned with the very nature of friendship and companionship, this play is a journey from the simple "hello" to the headiest madness of the spirit. Along the way each character confronts him or herself and finds the battle raging within a tough one to understand and conquer.
The role of Marjorie has turned "stars" into actresses: Karen Allen, Farah Fawcett and Susan Sarandon among them back in 1982 and 1983. Molly Camp takes the role now and could make this actress into a star. The intensity of her involvement in this part is almost frightening. I was never more grateful for a curtain call look at this young woman, to see that the extreme anger and fear and disgust was no longer written across her face. She takes on each and every emotional turn in this play with a feline aggressiveness; she is a hellcat turned loose in a living room. It is her playing, pillow to pillow, that sets the barre high at the Unicorn and it is her control that keeps the play going long after we have been exhausted and almost cannot care any longer about her or her friends.
Kelly McCreary plays Terry, the first roommate to come upon the scene. Her entrance at a point when things have gone from extremely bad to extremely worse alters the play. It is with her entry into the fray that we realize for the first time how deeply involved with these women the man in question has become. That is the moment when fear and loathing take over the other extreme emotions already in play. McCreary plays realization with amazing awkward grace. She brings out in herself and others emotional reactions that otherwise would have no place in this play. We can be thankful for this actress’ honest sense of cool-headedness for without her there would be a very different outcome sensed as inevitable and then disappointedly denied. Her malleability works perfectly for Terry.
Similarly the playing by Miriam Silverman of the intellectually acute Patricia brings in elements of reaction that are missing in the other two. No one shows us how three friends can be torn asunder by the intrusion of a fourth like Patricia does and Silverman makes her brains an extreme issue by showing us a new sort of relaxed libido. Patricia is the most annoying character and, again, Silverman is perfectly agreeable here. She takes on the role with an agitating grace that is so perfect we want to just strangle her ourselves.
When a play takes on the forbidden subject of female chumminess and bears it so well it is almost a revelation to an audience. To see how the trust and faith that women supposedly have in one another can be so easily destroyed by a simple statement that could be a lie, could be the truth, is this playwright’s real intent. And like the other extremities he exposes, this one is an honest revelation.
The catalyst in all of this female betrayal is Raul, the stalker, the rapist, the so many things, played to the utmost extreme by James McMenamin. Extreme cunning and extreme cruelty are his to play with, but so are extreme pain and extreme fear and extreme madness. In the worst possible positions he toys with his intended victims while himself a victim of other extremities he has never met before in his career of terrorism. This actor is superb, joining the other three, and that the curtain call is not met with boos and with blows and with bunches of tomatoes being hurled at him is a tribute to his work and our honest perception that it has been work, that he is not the man he portrays. No finer cast of players could have been assembled for this very difficult, but extremely worthwhile, play.
Karen Allen has spared us nothing in her direction of "Extremities." She has obviously brought her own memories of the original with her, but her best value is not the past but the actual present of the piece. She has imbued in each of her players an accurate tension that speaks to now and not some other time or place. Her staging is anything but subtle. Her use of humiliating visuals is ideal. Her obvious communication with each actor in this play is borne out in their work and that is a director’s finest option, to leave little trace of herself on the stage but only the best presentation that her professional children can present to an audience.
All of this takes place on a set that is so real you would want to live in it designed by John McDermott. David Murin’s costumes help to define each of the characters perfectly. Shawn E. Boyle’s lighting is excellent at underscoring the moments at play and Scott Killian’s original music is almost a throwback to the era of the play’s origin although at times it overwhelmed the words being uttered on stage.
Difficult theater at its best is what we have before us here. Some may flinch at the subject matter and others may be drawn in some horrible way to experience for themselves all of the extremities this cast of characters experience. But this is theater at its best and it cannot be avoided if you want to know what theater is really all about.
Molly Camp; photo: Abby LePage
James McMenamin and Molly Camp; photo: Abby LePage
Miriam Silverman and Kelly Mccreary; photo: Abby LePage
Extremities plays at the Unicorn Theatre on the Stockbridge campus of the Berkshire Theatre Group, on Route 7 just north of town. For information and tickets call the box office at 413-997-4444 or go online at www.BerkshireTheatreGroup.org.