by Monica Charline Brown
Acclaimed playwright Eduardo Ivan Lopez has molded a true paragon of the contemporary American drama with his play, Natural Life, running at the T. Schreiber Theater. Via a script so realistic it veers on the model of a documentary, director Jake Turner contrasts hauntingly naturalistic action with surrealist, lurid staging. What’s more, Natural Life is centered on a true story.
The story surrounds the fictional Claire McGreely, a midwestern woman in the 1980s, depicting her journey to capital punishment. The method of storytelling relies on flashbacks through a twenty-year period, providing the audience an insider’s glance into the shaping of the monster Claire McGreely, as portrayed by the media. There could not be a time more à propos for a production of Natural Life. Examining the news in all its forms today, with heightened attention to criminal activity and how the justice system is beckoned to handle fate, the story hits a visceral measure of current times.
The most captivating aspect of the story tracks the personal relationship between Rita Hathaway, a prominent television reporter, and the inmate. Claire, exasperated with the media’s habit of stretching the truth about her case, contacts Rita to set the record straight, once and for all. The urgency is heightened to a palpable level when Claire confides to Rita the reason for going public with her life story. Claire desires to drop all appeals regarding her capital punishment. In her eyes, the state has affirmed the will to execute and she simply wants for them to carry out what they intend. Utterly shocked by the news, Rita agrees to have an exclusive on Claire’s saga and to tell the truth “the way it happened.”
What cannot be predicted is the friendship and love Rita acquires for Claire. Bit by bit, piece by piece, Rita learns the atrocities structuring Claire’s background. The unfathomable was an inescapable daily life for young Claire. Horrific sexual abuse and rape from the age of five, alcoholism throughout her entire upbringing, compulsory prostitution as a living at a pitiful fourteen years old, and family violence subsequently transitioning to marital violence, were all components of her life. A vicious and inexorable cycle, Claire tried and tried to get away and redeem herself. How could Rita not feel sympathy for a woman who truly was dealt an awful deck of cards in life?
Ultimately, in the actual moment where Claire is on the bed waiting for lethal injection, the state withdraws its execution sentence, changing it to life in prison without parole. Claire attempts suicide, claiming visions of seeing her mother and child coming to her from the other side, but cries out for help before it is too late. The story greatly begs the question of what is the best punishment for crime? Is it worse to be quickly killed by the state or to rot in prison for the rest of one’s life? Moreover, is Claire—and all those like Claire—a martyr, truly guilty or a victims of circumstance? Irrevocably, is Rita—and the media in general—justified in becoming closely involved with a legal matter and perhaps influencing decisions within the justice system?
Holly Heiser is a heroine as Claire McGreely. Her supreme vulnerability and ability to balance the intelligent, articulate, and likeable side of a criminal establishes an instant connection with the audience. Anna Holbrook expertly portrays the reporter Rita Hathaway, fast-talking, hardened, and at times, feisty, but not withholding the inherent woman in her that craves affection and demands integrity. The chemistry Joseph D. Giardina, as Virgil Philpot (the abusive husband Claire is put on death row for murdering), and Bob Rogerson as Ben Dushane (the governor of the state but also Rita’s former almost husband) respectively establish with their female counterparts is fascinating and enthralling. Other standout performances include the wry Noelle McGrath as Mama and Don Carter as the schmuck television boss, Dan Coleman.
Pei-Wen Huang-Shea’s set design focuses on clean lines in an aptly architectural manner. Similarly, Dennis Parichy’s lighting design sets the mood and skillfully guides the eye to the story being told. Andy Evan Cohen excels in his ominous music design, life-like sound design, and genius video design, incorporating televisions into the set for dually pre-recorded news segments and an interactive set facet. It should be mentioned that Hope Governali’s costumes and styling expertly craft the world of the play and contribute to character in an astute way.
Do yourself a favor and check out Natural Life at T. Schreiber Studio. Seriously, it’s that good.
Natural Life. through April 2 at T. Schreiber Theatre (151 West 26th Street, 7th Floor). Box office: 212-352-3101 or www.tschreiber.org. Runs 1:50 with intermission.
Photos by Remy S.