One minute you're comfortable and the next, you feel a noose slowly twisting on your neck, cutting off oxygen, making you dizzy and terrified. This not only happens to one character in Extremities, now at Blank Canvas Theatre, it also happens to the audience a mere few minutes after the curtain rises. And that noose won't let you go anytime soon.
While this play by William Mastrosimone is not without its flaws, it has a brutal honesty and enough credible moral complexity to fuel a number of intense post-show conversations.
After a rather leisurely beginning, as a young woman pads around her living room at the start of a day, her placid environment is upset when an intruding wasp stings her and she sprays it dead. Turns out, that will be the highlight of her day since, a couple minutes thereafter, another intruder, a stranger, enters her unlocked house looking for a guy named Joe.
After some uneasy back-and-forth between the two, it becomes clear that the man, Raul, won't be leaving and that the woman, Marjorie, is in serious trouble. Marjorie calls for her husband to wake up, but Raul is totally relaxed, knowing that such a man doesn't exist. He's done his homework: he's even waited until Marjorie's two female roommates have left for work.
Marjorie is trapped, and soon a brutal assault ensues that will not only make your skin crawl, it may make your skin want to jump up and bolt for the nearest exit.
But watch we must, as Raul throws himself on top of Marjorie on the floor and makes her coo she loves him as he tries to violate her. Before a rape can actually occur, she sprays his face with the can of Raid and, after a blackout, he's tied up and imprisoned in the living room fireplace with a bicycle chained to the opening.
Now, the roles are reversed but the complications have only begun. Marjorie quickly realizes that she's in a no-win situation: If she calls the police, they may arrest Raul for trespassing or some other minor offense. But since there is no evidence of an assault on her, and he is suffering from the insecticide attack, she may actually be seen as a perpetrator. Raul makes it clear he will come after her again when he is freed from police custody.
So Marjorie decides that the only sensible option she has is to kill Raul and bury him in her garden. Sure, it seems farfetched on the surface, but Marjorie's thinking is emblematic of the tortured mental gymnastics many women are forced into, after being assaulted or raped. The criminal justice system is stacked against them, which is why so many women never report these kinds of hateful crimes.
A bit of levity in introduced as the roommates, first ditzy Terry and then sensible Patricia come home from work to encounter a man in the fireplace who definitely ain't Santa. Gullible Terry is easily conned by the smooth-talking Raul, while Patricia applies her well-honed good sense to a situation that isn't easily amenable to logic.
Eventually, the whole mess is resolved after a final confrontation between a noose-twisting, knife-wielding Marjorie and helpless Raul. This showdown lacks the graphic specificity and psychological horror required to parallel the first attack and initiate Raul's ultimate decision. But that is virtually the only staging misstep director Jonathan Kronenberger makes in this beautifully paced production.
Sure, the whole confined-in-a-fireplace-by-a bicycle thing is a bit silly, since even a blind man could bust through that in short order. And the set design is spare to a fault, not displaying the feminine decorative touches that would give the play an extra dose of shock. But we're willing to set aside these blips in order to address the heart of the piece, which is both agonizing and fascinating.
In the primary role of Marjorie, Tiffany Trapnell negotiates this emotional minefield skillfully, conveying the full amount of rage this woman must be feeling. And when she analyzes the difficult conundrum she finds herself in, it's hard not to agree with her homicidal conclusion. As Raul, Aaron Christopher Marrero is smooth and terrifying in the initial assault scene. But he doesn't find the through-line of this canny, manipulative, street-smart scumbag. As a result, many of Raul's speeches feel fragmented and unfocused—odd for a man blinded by the bug spray and fighting for his life with words, the only weapon he has left.
In the secondary roles of the roommates, Katie Zarecki and Amiee Collier handle their parts with the mixture of confusion, self-centeredness and fear that would be natural.
Farrah Fawcett starred in the movie version of Extremities back in the day. But to get the visceral feel of this shocking show, you need to experience it in person. And Blank Canvas is giving you that chance right now.