Dallas — The sheen of blissful domesticity is exposed and utterly destroyed in Second Thought Theatre’s disturbing, flawless production of Amy Herzog’s gut-punch of a play Belleville.
Abby (Jenny Ledel) and Zack (Drew Wall) are a young American couple living in the trendy Belleville district of Paris. Herzog lulls the audience into a false comfort by introducing a near romantic comedy of a plot before greasing the ledge of sanity on which these characters hold a tenuous grip. Abby, who has battled depression in the past and is currently trying to go off her meds is cared for by her loving, doctor husband. They have a quippy back-and-forth and everything appears fine. But, when their landlord and friend Alioune (Rico Romulus) confronts Zack about the delinquency in his rent, things start to turn. Zack’s carefully constructed reality begins to unravel and raise doubts about who exactly is the one in need of psychological intervention.
The Bryant Hall set, designed by Sarah Brown, is the intricately detailed living room of Zack and Abby. It is the picture of bland suburban life, albeit in an exotic location. Zack, a doctor, works for a non-profit, and Abby is a yoga instructor. But Herzog veers sharply into LaBute territory by giving these characters troubled backstories filled with secrets that turn into shocking revelations. Alioune and his young wife Amina (Afomia Hailemeskel) are a stark contrast and unwitting victims of their troubled tenants.
Zack and Abby are tricky parts to nail. The veil of normalcy has to be outwardly maintained while being internally eroded, and to that end director Lee Trull has found two apt actors to tackle the challenging roles. Ledel is stunning. In this performance, she’s able to put on the better face of a good person. Her Abby has a troubled past, and Ledel lends her character with an authentic consciousness that telegraphs her blatant attempt to play the role of nice, normal wife. She earnestly wants to be normal, and the challenge comes in the fact that she is normal but doesn’t feel like she is. Ledel takes the audience from feeling one kind of sorry for her to another kind of feeling sorry for her It’s tough to put into words, which is what makes it so impressive. Abby’s situation, despite the larger than life events of the plot, doesn’t really change much. So, Ledel’s performance had to be subtle and methodical. It is, and it’s fascinating to watch.
Not to be outdone, Wall’s Zack always has to be in control. But as with Ledel’s character, what he’s trying to control changes. His attempts to maintain that control are increasingly absurd and alienating. It’d be easy to turn the character into a total weirdo, but Wall instead makes it eerie and uneasy. The moment when his ruse starts to get exposed is incredibly unsettling. It’s just so good. Scary, but good.
In smaller parts, Romulus and Hailemeskel provide the necessary contrast to their neighbor tenants. Romulus gives Alioune a good sense of the conflicted feelings he feels towards his friends while Hailemeskel is the most sound and solid character of the bunch. Her character, in two scenes, provides the ideal by which the other characters’ troubles are measured. When she bluntly sums up all the craziness in one particularly chaotic scene, she becomes the perfect vessel for the audience’s perspective. There’s an old saying that the smaller roles are more difficult because it gives the actor less time to assert their identity. And, in Hailemeskel’s case, she’s able to deftly place the audience in the context of the play. It’s arresting.
This is one of those shows that should not be missed. This is a group of people, in association with a strong theater, that represent the future of theater in this area. Trull is a talent both on and off stage. This play represents a difficult needle to thread and his direction weaves it into a fascinating, if not grotesque, tapestry. The cast, too, represents some of the finest talent on local stages right now. Wall, a STT company member, and Ledel, a Kitchen Dog company member, are two bright, young talents. Romulus too has been on an absolute tear lately. His performance in Jubilee Theatre’s The Brothers Size was stirring.
Admittedly, Belleville is not an easy play to watch. It’s daring and difficult. There are moments when the eyes want to turn away, but don’t let them. Take every second of this play in. Feel it. Experience it. Great theater should push the audience into an uncomfortable place. And Herzog, in the capable hands of Trull’s cast and crew, magnifies the cracks that exist in the veneer of wedded bliss. By looking at these cracks, it puts life into sobering perspective. Most of us will never see the seedy underbelly of an innocently stubbed toe or hot bath, but we will experience trials.
Belleville is trying. It’s difficult. But that’s what makes life, however unsettling, sane. And, Abby and Zack would kill for that.