Sometimes, an audience has to do some yeoman work to climb over nonsensical barriers before it can enjoy a production. And such is the case with Slowgirl by Greg Pierce, now at Dobama Theatre. This show begins with some head-shaking doozies that you just have to accept on faith. But once you do, there are some lovely treasures that await.
The need for willing suspension of disbelief occurs almost instantly, as we see 17-year-old Becky, not-so-fresh from a nine-hour flight from the States, standing in her Uncle Sterling's cozy little hut in Costa Rica. She's there because her mom, Sterling's sister, sent her off when she was suspended from school after an awful incident at a party.
It seems that a classmate named Mary Beth (nicknamed "Slowgirl" because she has some mental challenges) swallowed a few too many Jello shots and somehow toppled out of a second floor window onto a patio. Becky was at the party and apparently in close proximity to the room where Mary Beth exited, so she is under suspicion.
Problem one: It seems incredible that a mother would fly her daughter out of the country when she's under investigation, since we know early on that Mary Beth is now in a coma. Wouldn't police be involved in this case and be curious that a key teenage witness/suspect had suddenly flown the coop, out of the country, by herself?
Problem two: Becky arrives at Sterling's primitive home and immediately takes the lead in conversation, like a constantly chattering emcee of her own jungle talk show. Wouldn't a teenager in this precarious situation be missing the support of her posse of pals back home, and feel completely ill-at-ease with a weird, reclusive old-fart uncle she hadn't seen since she was 8 years old?
Ahh, never mind. That's the setup, and once you accept those premises, Pierce's play opens up into a fascinating character study that always intrigues while never really engaging deeply.
Turns out, both uncle and niece are escaping from difficult situations in which they were involved, either actively or passively. Sterling alludes to his problems quite obliquely — involving lawsuits from Holocaust survivors — but it's clear he's had his fill of American-style civilization. Instead, he has found a quiet, undemanding refuge amongst the iguanas and other beasties in this Central American country, nicely suggested in Laura Carlson Tarantowski's cozy set.
After a couple days Becky's machine-gun quick, obscenity-lathered teenage repartee slows down enough to allow the two to start connecting. And they do, especially when they visit Sterling's "sanctuary," a walking labyrinth that he and his local friend Hector have built on a nearby mountaintop. This interlude is particularly charming, as Becky at first makes fun of her uncle's meditative practice and then begins to find some solace herself in that place.
Of course, you can see where this mismatched duo is heading, true to all buddy movies, but Pierce's dialogue is so well calculated and restrained that you never feel you're being bulldozed into accepting these people as who they are. And the playwright certainly has an ear for the hip-hop verbal riffs that teens can employ. This is enhanced immeasurably by the direction of Leighann DeLorenzo, who paces the show to perfectly match the slow reveals in the script.
As Sterling, Christopher Bohan is tightly wound for a guy whose biggest problem seems to be when to put the doors back on his hut to prepare for the rainy season. And this is fitting, since Sterling is carrying around a huge load of guilt that he can't seem to shake. Bohan invests his character with a quiet resignation posing as contentment, and that certainly rings true.
But most of the time, Bohan serves as a straight man to Miranda LeeAnn Scholl's Becky, a live-wire kid who happily tramples on personal boundaries as she knocks back rum cocktails and pleads for some ganja. Indeed, this Becky seems like what she says she is, a leader of her clan back at the school. Scholl plays those notes extremely well, but she doesn't hint at any darker side, a possible "mean girl" vibe that might lend her story more edge, whether she's guilty or innocent.
The two actors perform together with seamless fluidity. Still, it's hard to escape the feeling that a key part of this story is missing. Each of these broken people claim to have been guilt-less bystanders in their predicaments. And that defies logic, especially given their post-trauma bug-outs. But Pierce never has a "come-to-Jesus" moment for either, and opts instead for an ending that might be as much a collusion between perpetrators as a redemption of innocent, tortured souls.
While neither the beginning nor ending of Slowgirl is entirely satisfying, laughter and some genuine poignancy reside in between.