by Carole Di Tosti
On the surface Keep written by Francesca Pazniokas, directed by Stephanie C. Cunningham, is a play about hoarding, the obsessive compulsive disorder that can drive families apart. On a profound level Pazniokas’ work is about self-definition, identity and escape from pain. Through her characterizations, Pazniokas asks us to empathize with an individual’s attempt to unify the parts of her fragmented personality together in the face of heartfelt loss and terrifying guilt.
Conceived as a dynamic tour de force initially among sisters Jane (Madison Comerzan), Kara (Jenna D’Angelo) and Naomi (Kim Krane), at the outset the director has set the stage with a multitude of items, cardboard boxes, a dead plant, tables, a trunk, an old record player, etc., which are neither true antiques or collectables. In the opening scene as the audience enters, Naomi lies on the floor in the middle of the “garbage heap,” with headphones on listening to music. We are assaulted by this visual morass and questions abound: why, how, who? Why is she content to stay in this pile of debris? Wouldn’t the disorder, chaos and discontinuity drive anyone to madness? Ah, “there’s the rub!”
When Jane and Kara come to visit their sister, whom they haven’t seen in months to help her sort through the mess, the playwright leads us into a labyrinth of family dysfunctionality. The “mess” they’ve come to reconcile has to deal with abandonment, secrets and obfuscations. We see that Naomi’s self-created chaotic material jungle of found flotsom and throwaway estate sale items is a jumble of confusion representing Naomi’s emotional states. Without it, she is unprotected from self and what threatens to overwhelm her. Her life is a literal and figurative collection of unwanted “stuff.” But the rubbish has great symbolic meaning for her. And when her sisters attempt to make sense of it all, with iron control, she blasts them with self-revelatory truth that staves off their obtrusiveness.
For their part Jane and Kara have used their semblance of being “whole” as a foil against Naomi’s apparent self-destructive urges manifested in her hoarding. However, they are no more astute or wise about handling their own reactions to their family’s dysfunctionality. How gradual revelations are teased up, brought to the fore and then expiated is an interesting dynamic among the three, especially when Kara and Jane attempt to dump various pieces of “useless” clutter into a box to eventually throw away. Naomi assiduously prevents them.
The first part of the play is solid with fine performances by the ensemble. Each delineates her character with enough moment-to-moment liveliness. Each has invested the emotional gusto to portray the high points of the sisterly conflict with believability. As Jane and Kara confront Naomi with why she is retaining particular items, we appreciate the humor, irony and poignancy and empathize with their pain about how “cleaning up the dross” relates to each of their own personal emotional states.
However, the play falters when it leaves the immediacy of the sisterly dynamic and launches into surrealist, other-worldly terrain (evoked by lighting effects), with the introduction of Margo (Leslie Marseglia). Margo is visible to the audience but unseen to the characters. Apparently, her presence haunts and overwhelms Naomi’s life. Through Margo’s dialogue and old postcards, the playwright attempts to galvanize the truth about the family’s deepest secrets to provide the explanation why Naomi isolates herself to create a world of thoughts, feelings and memories through material contact points that are spiritually purposeful to her. The conceptualization is interesting, but it is not effected with enough grace to hold the second half of the play together as well as the first. Editing problems? Perhaps.
The production, rendered with skill by the director, though at times dialogue unwieldy, engages overall. By the conclusion, we understand that Naomi’s world intentionally separates her from her sisters and reality. It “keeps” her in a condition of stasis where she is not “here” or “there” or “anywhere” that those closest to her can palpably touch and penetrate. For Naomi, that is a good thing…for now.
Keep presented by Wide Eyed Productions and Mastodon Theatre Company is running until April 30, 2016 at the TBG Theatre at 312 Thirty-sixth Street between Eighth and Ninth Avenues. It is 90 minutes without an intermission.
Photos: Russell Rowland