Dallas — The title of Undermain Theatre’s latest production, Really, by Jackie Sibblies Drury, begs a re-examination of the commonplace modifier that gets used to reinforce whatever lazy adjective that follows: really fast, really great, really profound. The response to these remarks can often be…Really? In this case, playwright Drury with careful direction by Carson McCain uses the grief of a girlfriend and a mother to investigate what is real. What makes something real? To see it, touch it, feel it or just remember it? And what happens when there is no one left to do that for the one that’s gone?
This play is short.
At one hour, it resembles the photographs taken by the troubled artist, boyfriend, and son, Calvin (Brandon J. Murphy). Drury is capable of lengthier work as evidenced by Undermain’s rangy, expansive 2014 staging of another of hers, We Are Proud to Present…The vacuum felt at the end of Really is therefore intentional. Like the loss felt by Mother (Laura Jorgensen) and Girlfriend (Kristen Lee), we are abruptly left to fill the space with something. If we follow the Mother’s example, it will be with words.
Jorgensen fuels the barrage of verbiage with an air of affable incredulity that will be recognizable to the affluent of Dallas audiences. These are the not so subtle musings of a mother-in-law about the way her offspring are living their lives. Where Jorgensen shines is in the lingering lilt at the very end of a passage that turns her meaning as well as a sharp knife-edge.
To her credit, Lee responds with silences that are at once dutiful, workmanlike (she’s trying to take Mother’s picture in her apartment studio) and calculatedly infuriating. She won’t give in to Mother’s baiting so easily. The dynamic is reminiscent of Amanda hounding Laura in The Glass Menagerie. Lots of words with little meaning crashing on lots of meaning with little words.
Between the two comes Murphy’s Calvin, who is decidedly less sympathetic than expected. Partly the playwright is painting him through the lens of the women in a state of grief that contains a lot of anger. Partly, Murphy has chosen to accentuate a side of the character that is enigmatic and even aggressive. It’s a bold choice to lead the audience to the edge of a hole left in the shape of his character and leave them to fill it in. But isn’t that just what an artist does with their art?
And that is partly the point.
Ironically, for a play built around the verisimilitude of photography, director McCain stages more like a watercolorist: delicate but definite. Some moments overlay each other, sharing their colors by virtue of their translucency. Others fade out to white at the edges leaving space for our imaginations to work in the margins. It’s an approach that blends well with playwright Sibblies’ ability to wring meaning out of the spaces left between moments.
One of the most evocative is the love scene that intensifies Girlfriend and Calvin’s relationship. Lighting designer Steve Woods carefully shifts the environment as sound designer Bruce DuBose immerses the audience in a sultry, fuzz of sound. Robert Winn’s studio set with its vertigo-inducing skyline backdrop doesn’t have to shift to the bedroom for us to get the picture. Gelació Eric Gibson’s costumes feature two cardigan coups. For the first, Lee only has to drop hers off the shoulder to make us wonder if we should leave these two lovebirds alone. For the second, you’ll have to see the show.
This is a tight production that will require some unpacking after the fact. At one hour, there’s plenty of time left in the evening to do just that.