A Charity Case, the new play by Australian playwright Wendy Beckett, delves into the deeply emotional topic of adoption with sensitivity, grace and humor. The central story, of a dressmaker struggling to her raise her adopted daughter in mid-'60s San Francisco, is brought to vivid, heartbreaking life by Alysia Reiner, Jill Shackner, and most especially Alison Fraser, who anchors the play with a masterful performance.
Faith Bander (Fraser) and her restless adoptive daughter Deirdre (Shackner) share a small apartment, which doubles as the workroom where Faith makes ends meet by sewing dresses for clients she secretly despises. Faith’s husband abandoned the family years before: now Faith takes refuge in vodka-neat cocktail hours and questionable boyfriends, while Deirdre has private moments of anguish, crying out to all the parental figures who have left her. Deirdre has been corresponding with her birth mother, who in her letters calls herself Harpie – after the mythological bird-woman figures who were thought to snatch people away to the underworld. Harpie (Reiner), clad in patchwork rags, spends most of the evening climbing through a cage-like structure which surrounds the set – unspooling her own story while observing the escalating tension between Faith and Deirdre.
A Charity Case is almost two different plays braided together. Author and director Beckett attempts to marry two very distinct styles: one, a mostly naturalistic portrayal of a loving yet contentious mother-daughter relationship – the other, a more heightened mode which draws on Greek drama by way of stream-of-consciousness poetry. The two competing styles do not always mesh well together, although by the play’s end, the more theatrical elements have served their purpose of adding an epic quality to the story, lifting it toward a mythic view of the triangle of adoptive mother, birth mother and child.
The play is woven through with bird imagery, beginning with Harpie’s naming of herself after the legendary raptor-spirits. Faith’s surname, Bander, calls to mind bird banders, who capture and track birds with bands placed around their legs. Birds echo throughout the production design: a print of three songbirds hangs in Faith’s apartment, while the hat that Harpie wears in the final moments of the play is subtly trimmed with feathers at the brim.
Beyond the references to birds (the baby-bearing stork, ravens, harpies and the immortal phoenix), the text invokes a variety of mythic female archetypes. The three characters are a variation on the mother-maiden-crone trinity, as well as the trinity of the martyred saints Faith, Hope and Charity: there is the aptly named Faith herself, Deirdre as the “charity case” of the play’s title – and the birth mother, who, when abandoning her Harpie guise, says, “I’m really just an ordinary woman, flawed; hopeful…” The daughter’s name “Deirdre” alludes to “Deirdre of the Sorrows” of Celtic mythology, who was ejected from her royal home and raised in the wilderness by a wise woman.
The metaphor of sewing also figures prominently (the harsh ripping of a seam brought an audible reaction from the audience in a climactic moment.) Harpie is wrapped in rough patchwork, while Faith, who dreams of being a designer, finds herself laboring as a seamstress in a dying profession: bespoke dressmaking is being abandoned in favor of mass-produced fashion.
I’ve been making their dresses for years, good enough before. No loyalty. Now all they want is cheap, cheap mass produced, made in Japan. All those ugly big stores. But I’ll find a way to punish them. Yes, they’ll see. Faith Bander they say, gossip, gossip, single mother, divorced. Oh lock up your husbands girls. Here comes Faith in one of her beautiful dresses. Jealous bitches! So, when I make their dresses, I’ll leave a few little faults here and there. Not so you would notice. An awkward shoulder, a clumsy fit at the waist so their stomach protrudes. And still, I’ll have them begging for my designs, oh yes. Damn chain stores. Who wants to see yourself coming down the street; everyone wearing the same dress.
Alison Fraser expertly calibrates Faith’s speeches, finding the vulnerability and humanity in even the angriest tirades. She deftly coaxes forth the play’s humor, most especially in a retort to an emotional outburst from her daughter (I won’t quote it verbatim so as not to spoil the joke.) She shows us Faith’s fragility, her mercurial moods, her sadness, her wit, and her strength – binding these all together in a layered portrayal of a woman trying to do her best and not always succeeding. (One wonders what she would do when given the chance to tackle Amanda Wingfield.)
As Deirdre, Jill Shackner finds the coltish energy of a 17 year old who is trying desperately to cling to her childhood. In one funny and moving sequence, she begs for a retelling of the story of when she was brought home from the hospital, trying to climb into her mother’s lap as she might have as a child. She stalks the apartment, occasionally mock-strangling herself to shock her mother – the banding of the bird grown too tight.
Alysia Reiner, who previously starred in Ms. Beckett’s play Modotti, has the most challenging task of the evening – being the sole bearer of the play’s more esoteric passages. At first it seems that the character might be Deirdre’s older self, while later it becomes apparent that she is Deirdre’s birth mother. The ambiguity is intriguing, but when so many other elements of the character are mysterious, it becomes a challenge to sort out in the moment. An uncertainty of tone made these sections occasionally hard to follow: the abstract writing is made more difficult to understand by the choice to deliver some of the text in a garbled rush. The emotion is conveyed, but some of the finer points are lost. It doesn’t help that the performer’s expressive face and body are mostly obscured by a heavy wig and bulky robe. In the final moments of the play, when the hair and rags are stripped away, Ms. Reiner conveys worlds merely in her hesitant posture as she walks toward a first meeting with her daughter.
The stylishly threadbare-around-the-edges set design by David L. Arsenault captures the essence of '60s San Francisco in a bohemian wooden-bead curtain. The set also evokes San Francisco’s Mission architecture, with its curlicued wrought iron gates: a bird cage trapping all the women. Effective use is made of an oversized wooden train seat, making Ms. Shackner seem tiny and childlike in the play’s opening tableau (in which lighting designer Travis McHale skillfully sets the mood of mystery.)
In a work where dressmaking is a central element, the clothes take particular focus. Theresa Squire crafts a stunning Tiffany-blue rolled collar sheath dress for Faith; she puts Deirdre in outfits ranging from period-perfect white Gidget dungarees to a heartbreakingly little-girlish party dress.
Ms. Beckett clearly has a strong connection with her subject matter. When it seems that every talk show has explored the topic of adoption from every angle for decades, it’s a challenge to strip away Lifetime-television-movie clichés and reawaken an audience to the pain of all involved. While the ambitious attempt to meld theatrical styles may be confusing at times, the play does wield significant power in its 75-minute span. At the afternoon performance I saw, the audience lingered after the curtain call, taking a few moments to absorb what they had seen before being ready to leave the theater.
A CHARITY CASE plays at the Clurman Theatre, 410 West 42nd Street. Performances are Tuesdays at 7 pm, Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8 pm, with matinees Saturday at 2 pm and Sundays at 3 pm. Tickets are $35, available through Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or telecharge.com, or at www.pascalproductions.net.