Tuesday, August 2, 2016

GETTING OUT: A Tough Row to Hoe For An Ex-Con in The Seeing Place's Provocative Production of an Early Play by Marsha Norman

Candice Oden and Erin Cronican

As much as anything, Marsha Norman’s 1978 play Getting Out – about a woman trying to pull her life together after serving an eight-year prison term – is a feminist cry for selfhood from someone who has very nearly lost hers. This lesser known work by the playwright who five years later would receive the Pulitzer Prize for ‘night, Mother is being given a richly layered production at the Lynn Redgrave Theater by The Seeing Place, a gutsy independent theater company that strives always to dig deeply into psychologically complex works.

Erin Cronican both directs and stars as Arlene, so tightly wound and passive in the early scenes that you might think she is trying to disappear altogether. As the play opens, she is getting settled into a dumpy apartment in Kentucky, far from the prison where she was incarcerated following a conviction for second degree murder. We learn very quickly that the irritatingly unassertive Arlene we meet is what remains of the enraged and rebellious Arlie, her younger self, played in parallel, sometimes overlapping scenes by Candice Oden. 

The playwright does not make it easy to sympathize with either Arlene (who has a penchant for falling into every trap laid out before her) or for Arlie, with her vicious and explosive temperament. Can Arlene truly believe that Bennie (Leo Goodman), the prison guard who quit his job and drove her 500 miles to her new home, is just being a Good Samaritan and doesn’t want anything else of her?  Can she be sucker enough to return to her former boyfriend and pimp Carl (Steve Carrieri), who fathered the child she gave up to foster care? And can she honestly imagine that after all this time she will be able to be reunited with that child?   

As for Arlie, we can easily see why she winds up in solitary confinement at the prison. She is a caged tiger, a danger to anyone with whom she comes into contact. And even as we get to know something of her background – victimized by a physically and sexually abusive father and the other men in her life, and rejected by her embittered mother (Carla Brandberg) – she is still someone with whom we would not want to spend much time.  We can be sympathetic in theory, but please don’t force us to deal with her. 

Arlene’s only lifeline is an upstairs neighbor, Ruby (Jane Kahler), herself an ex-con. Unlike Arlene, Ruby understands the reality of her situation, the necessity of managing on a low-paying dead-end job as a restaurant worker, and doing the best she can to make herself as comfortable as possible by passing the time playing cards and watching television. She reaches out a hand of friendship to Arlene, who has been so battered by life she doesn’t even know what a no-strings friendship can possibly mean. Arlene also does not comprehend what a terrible mistake she has made by completely turning her back on the rebel-with-a-cause Arlie, her discarded self whom she literally attempted to sever from her personality. (For this, she has to thank yet another man, the well-meaning but damaging prison chaplain.)  

Now in its seventh season, The Seeing Place is able to draw on a pool of talented New York actors. The cast as a whole is very good, with standouts being Ms. Brandberg as Arlene’s mother, showing us both her bitterness and her grudging effort to be supportive; and Mr. Carrieri as Carl, embodying both threat and sexual allure, so that we can see why Arlene is tempted to take up with him again.

Neither the playwright nor this production offers easy solutions, only reminding us that as a society we are perfectly willing to toss our ex-cons  even those like Arlene who are deemed to be "completely rehabilitated"  back into the same environment that led to their downfall in the first place. We all know about the high rate of recidivism for such as Arlie/Arlene, especially when they are left adrift with few prospects upon release, so her future is unpredictable at best. Only the tiniest shred of hope remains.

Feel free to share this blog with your friends, and to offer up your own theater stories by posting a comment. I also invite you to check out the new website Show-Score.Com, where you will find capsule reviews of current plays from Yours Truly and many other New York critics.  

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