A girl comes of age
Cuban-born lesbian playwright Maria Irene Fornes had her first play produced in New York in 1963. She quickly became part of a coterie of underground off-off-Broadway playwrights in the 1960s that included Sam Shepard, Terrence McNally, Murray Mednick and others.
Now in her seventies, and the author of more than 20 plays, Fornes is still writing. In fact, she is one of the few playwrights in America who has managed to make a career out of small New York productions.
On Thursday at Berkeley’s Julia Morgan Center, Shotgun Players opened a curious production of Fornes’ 1987 Obie Award-winning play "Abingdon Square."
Set largely in an upper middle class New York parlor, "Abingdon Square" is the story of a 15-year-old girl-woman’s coming of age in the decade beginning 1908.
Orphaned waif Marion (an enthusiastic, girlish Myla Balugay) marries a much older wealthy man (affably remote Christopher Herold). The play then follows Marion’s maturing process as a person, and the evolution of her marriage.
Structurally, "Abingdon Square" is told in a series of scenes, some of them very short, punctuated by blackouts. In fact, in director Shana Cooper’s production, some of the scenelets are very short indeed, lasting only a few seconds and containing no dialogue—just an emotionally motivated crossing of the stage by a character, or a moment of portentous eye contact between two actors.
Soon the romantic fantasies that Marion can’t control disturb her enthusiasm for her marriage. She discovers other men.
Marion’s naïve, outgoing personality grows more somber and devious. Her husband’s benign affability sours. A potential lover materials and identifies himself as Marion’s shadow.
But "Abingdon Square" is a difficult and disjointed script. Under Cooper’s direction there is little continuity between story segments, and the timeline is often unclear.
Thematically, the play is about innocence and loss of innocence. In a 1908 of repressed conventionality, Marion struggles fearfully with her own vivid romantic imagination.
Although the story is simple, however, the script manages to be didactic, telling its tale without subtlety. Structurally, the many short scenes work against the opportunity to examine relationships in depth.
When the one-dimensional character identifies himself as Marion’s shadow, "Abingdon Square" waffles between simplistic psychological story and ponderous allegory.
Ultimately, the characters in "Abingdon Square" represent types and conditions. It becomes, then, a play about ideas rather than people, so it’s hard to take the characters seriously, or care about them.
Much of "Abingdon’s" story arrives in a rush in the play’s final quarter. By its conclusion, we’ve witnessed largely a formulaic melodrama with stock characters.
Director Cooper’s carefully mapped staging never gels. Much of the action—really the fault of the script—telegraphs itself in advance. Scenes repeat or reinforce the obvious.
Most important in this production, perhaps, Balugay doesn’t merge into a single character Marion’s initial joy at marriage, and her subsequent disconcerting fantasy about sex. Herold, usually a strong performer, doesn’t find a way to make interesting his cartoon husband.
Both husband and wife are ideas, and their relationship is a theory. Because the dialogue is ungraceful and speechifying, it’s a handful for the actors.
Andrea Day is amusing in a smaller role as Marion’s prurient sex-obsessed friend. Jacob Thompson is an enthusiastic, boyish stepson Michael. Lisa Clark has designed a clever, lacy Edwardian set, which includes a parlor and a garden.
It’s odd that "Abingdon Square" won a Best Play Obie in 1987. That’s a good example of the eccentric vagaries of literary award-giving.
This play may be interesting to hard-core theater buffs who won’t have another opportunity to see it performed, but for the average theater-goer, "Abingdon Square" probably will not be exciting.
Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for "American Theatre," "Backstage West," "Callboard," and many other publications. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or fax him at 419-781-2516.