Tough Love

"My life is clichés that make up a fundamental truth," says Elise, a repressed stay-at-home mom. The same could be said of everyone else in A Matter of Hands, the newest work by Unraveling Muses. From a vacuous newscaster (the self-described "scariest bitch in TV Land") to a wacky itinerant prophet, these seemingly lost, disparate souls transcend their familiar types and, together, are more than the sum of their parts. Actor-playwright Katherine Preble interprets each of the play's seven roles with an openness and vulnerability that's rare in a genre that often caters to masturbatory exhibitionism. Normally I want to stab my eyes out when I have to sit through a one-person show, but this was a happy exception.

The first character we meet is Ernestine, a young girl with lopsided pigtails, infectious energy, and lousy parents. Her father is an abusive adulterer; her mother, Elise, is a codependent sissy. "It's just easier to pretend," Elise says, but you have to wonder how well that program has served her, considering that she went from her father's house to her husband's, from one batterer to another. Her husband comes home every night reeking of booze and other women, and the last time Elise did something "unacceptable," he bashed her head in. But she has been beaten down for so long that she confuses acts of violence with acts of love.

In the next scene, Elise's estranged alcoholic father, who sounds like a geriatric extra from The Sopranos, inexplicably decides to right his years of wrongdoing by attempting to meet his granddaughter. Before he can redeem himself, his heart gives out. You want to cry for the old man, but you also want to cheer his demise. A chalk outline of his body reminds us of life's transience throughout the play.

Each character progresses from congenial intros to naked tell-alls, though some of them are more self-aware than seems plausible. Would a self-righteous, racist cop really be so forthcoming about the time she was raped? These types of confessions make Act 2 feel overlong and labored at times. Granted, it's hard to follow the old show-don't-tell saw in a solo show, a problem that Courtney Hudson's choreographed vignettes try to address, though not quite successfully. Her childlike movements and hopscotch imagery work for the first scene, but the interludes, too vague and simplistic for a show dealing with self-hatred, racism, and domestic abuse, grow repetitive as the play moves on, till it seems like we're just biding time while Preble changes costumes.

But overall, Preble and Hudson have crafted an exceptional play, touching on matters of the heart in a way that uplifts without moralizing. The patriarch's chalk outline serves as a reminder of the play's loftier message: that forgiveness, the hardest act of all, can help us move toward a life lived without fear, animosity, or self-loathing. "At night," says Elise, "I get a glimpse of what I could be. And it's so beautiful."

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