Contemporary middle-class American life, we are frequently reminded, is fraught with psychological peril: fear over the future, disconnectedness, and any prospect of immediacy and meaning fleeting and ephemeral. Still, it beats dodging bullets and bombs, starvation, governmental oppression, or being eaten by wild animals.
So we're all malcontents, at least some of the time. The question: Are our comfort and luxury antithetical to our natural state (super-monkeys overfed and loaded with non-survival tasks tend to become unhappy, in other words), or do our material circumstances merely allow our true nature to emerge, in all its disaffection and dissatisfaction?
These aren't easy questions, and playwright Jeannine Coulombe's new Planting Shelly Anne essentially punts them, opting instead for a 90-minute circular anxiety attack. This isn't so much an exploration of today's spiritual nausea as a dry heave in its presence.
The action revolves around our titular heroine (Carolyn Pool), who kicks things off with a mannered, angst-ridden monologue about shrinking polar ice caps and the beauty of tulip bulbs (a potentially sturdy central metaphor of beauty and growth that instead stands in for ennui and lost potential). Pool, always a sympathetic performer with a streak of caustic humor and a husky note she drops into her voice when emotion strikes, just about carries it off.
We then meet Shelly Anne's family. Frank (John Riedlinger) is an apparent workaholic materialist who regards his wife with dead eyes and lectures her about managing her time (much of Pool's dialogue in the early going involves Shelly Anne's to-do list, vast and beyond vanquishing). Sherry (Renee Roden), their daughter, flits back and forth across the stage, lambasting Shelly Anne with half-assed adolescent venom, and eventually evinces what appears to be an eating disorder of indeterminate magnitude.
None of these dramatic elements is particularly objectionable (family dysfunction works as well today as it did in Shakespeare's time), and partway through there's at least some hope that we're going somewhere with this, or that this fairly pedestrian setup will somehow provide a commentary on itself. But when Shelly Anne's pal Monica (Katherine Kupiecki) arrives, and the two start to quarrel over academic knowledge versus mothering experience, we have firmly drifted into Lifetime territory.
It isn't as though we can't empathize with Shelly Anne, primarily because of Pool's haunted, increasingly numbed (while paradoxically frantic) portrayal. But when we become privy to Shelly Anne's fantasy life, which includes trips to Provence, being swept off her feet by a Latin lover (Riedlinger), and quarreling with a pompous Arctic explorer (Kupiecki), we veer into so many clichés (or, who knows, purposefully imploded stereotypes) that our sympathy is diluted by tedium.
Workhaus Collective has, over the past couple of years, not only brought an admirable amount of new work to the local stage, it has done so with a sense of quality control and adventurism tempered by experience and sophistication. Not so here. Planting Shelly Anne, at least in this production directed by Kristin Horton, rides a tone of apparent sincerity to depict a woman unable to reconnect with her life, her love, her meaning.
This should be moving stuff, but it's undermined by unreflective self-regard, repetition of pedestrian truths, and, perhaps worst of all, a final tinge of dramatic stasis produced by the idea that the collapse of the spirit is somehow an inevitable consequence of this moment. (Okay, we avoid a squishy, feel-good final note about those tulip bulbs, but can we manage at least a fuck-you to the universe rather than a stifled sob?) We don't need answers every time out, but we at least need our expressions of pain to be delivered with sharpness.