by Michael Bracken
Batten down the hatches and run for cover if you’re anywhere near the Atlantic 2 Theater while Rebecca Hall is onstage in Animal. Hall’s performance in Clare Lizzimore’s drama is a force of nature, replete with gale force winds and an occasional glimpse of the eye of the hurricane. Breathless and tireless, Hall plays Rachel, a young woman with a variety of extreme emotional and psychological issues and a reservoir of vitriol that she spews forth at her husband, Tom (Hall’s real-life husband, Morgan Spector), her therapist, Stephen (Greg Keller), and an old woman in a wheelchair (Kristin Griffith) who makes sounds but can’t quite put them together to form speech.
What’s most amazing about Hall’s performance (fueled by Lizzimore’s stinging dialogue) is the seemingly infinite variety she displays. And it’s organic. Rachel’s scorched earth trail of psychotic behavior is pretty much the entirety of the play. It would be burdensome to watch if it stayed on one note and off-putting if it delivered variety for variety’s sake. Here playwright and actress, guided by the sure hand of director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, collaborate to reveal a deeply troubled woman who switches gears the way a bumper car switches directions.
In a grey hoodie and a loosely-fitting skull cap (costume design by Sarah J. Holden), Rachel’s calm and almost rational one minute, explosive the next. She’s on a journey, a twisted, circular journey that keeps bringing her back to almost the same place. And the road is littered with fear, anger, distrust, confusion, and every so often a genuine shard of love. She challenges her shrink, castigates her husband, and physically (but not violently) abuses the old woman, who winds up with carrot colored soup that looks like baby food all over her face.
Griffith’s old woman is a bit of an enigma. When we first see her, we don’t know where she is – Rachel Hauck’s bare bones set gives us no clues – then she seems to be in Rachel and Tom’s house, and we can’t imagine why. Eventually Rachel refers to her as Tom’s mother. She seems out of place through much of the drama, but her significance is clear by the play’s end.
A modern-day Joan of Arc, Rachel hears voices. But unlike Joan, she’s visited by the studly Dan (David Pegram), who unexpectedly gives her a no-nonsense kiss on the mouth. He also takes off his shirt to reveal a muscular torso with glistening pecs. Rachel seems confused by her simultaneous attraction and fear.
Animal is played in the middle of the theater, with rows of seats rising on either side. Hall is like the sun – a dark, foreboding sun – with the other characters orbiting about her. The play – and the pyrotechnics – are hers, but she gets solid support from the rest of the company. Spector, as her husband, Tom, strives for patience but more often attains frustration. As her therapist, Keller is professional and challenged. Pegram, playing the imagined Dan, is smooth and sexy.
One doesn’t necessarily expect the roller coaster ride that is Animal to come to a conclusion, no less one that is neat and explanatory. But it does. From a logical vantage point it’s completely satisfying, but viscerally it’s ever so slightly anticlimactic. How could it be otherwise with the thrilling display of theatrical abandon that precedes it?
Photos: Ahron R. Foster
Through Sunday, June 25, 2017 at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 West 16th Street). https://atlantictheater.org/playevents/animal/. 85 minutes with no intermission.