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A CurtainUp Review

What if I told you that I was afraid — Dr. Danny Luchesi
What if I told you we're all afraid—Dr. John Oleander
Catherine Wolf and Deirdre O'Connell in Fugue
L to R:Catherine Wolf and Deirdre O'Connell in Fugue
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
Though the advance promotional materials describe Lee Thuna's Fugue as a comedic drama, this is a far cry from what most people think of as a comedy. It has exchanges that do indeed evoke laughter, but this is a case of providing some relief to offset the painful memories of both Mary, the amnesiac at the play's center, and Dr. Danny Luccheesi, the amnesia specialist called in to treat her. As for Mary's condition — the fugue state of psychogenic amnesia which occurs in otherwise healthy people who may may forget not only their pasts but their very identities— this is a pretty rare form of amnesia, contrary to the various psychological mystery dramas (most famously the movie, Spellbound) it has inspired.

According to a lengthy author's note inserted essay in my press kit, Fugue has had two previous productions that nabbed it an American Theatre Critics Award for Best Play in regional theater. It's been optioned by some well-known producers, but it's taken twenty years for the play to land the New York production it's currently being given at the handsomely renovated Cherry Lane Theater. Deidre O'Connell, who plays the woman incarcerated in a mental institution after being found wandering the streets of Chicago with her feet blistered and bloodied and her identity a mystery, is not as well known as some of the thespians (Diana Rigg and Sally Field, to name just two) who were intrigued by the meaty role during its optioned but unproduced days. She should be, for she is one of those actors who invariably makes a good play better and who can make even a flawed one worth seeing. You couldn't wish for a better actor to bring out all the subtleties in the troubled Mary's story and to make the most of her feisty and, yes, funny personality.

As the playwright and the people attending a performance are lucky to have O'Connell cast as the lead , so O'Connell and the seven other actors are fortunate to be directed by Judith Ivey, a fine actor lately double-dipping as a director. Ivey has ensured that the history locked up in Mary's troubled mind doesn't just spill out, but unpacks itself step by step, downplaying the script's plot holes and the tendency to telescope future revelations. Ivey has elicited excellent and believable performances from all the actors, notably the two doctors —Liam Craig as the very proper Dr. Oleander and Rick Stear the brilliant young Dr. Lucchessi whose own personal trauma may just make him the only one to help Mary— and Catherine Wolf as Mary's pragmatic, European born mother.

The segues between the present in Mary's hospital room to the various scenes from her gradually recovered memories are well served by Neil Patel's set which includes a staircase leading to a platform used for some of the by-play and for extra entrances and exits. The costumes (Gail Cooper-Hecht) lighting (Pat Dignan and sound design (T. Richard Fitzgerald, Carl Casellla) round out this production's assets.

This isn't a neatly tied up mystery so you'll have to live with the missing explanation for how Mary got to Chicago and why. Rick Stear's Dr. Lucchessi is appealing enough to make you swallow his against the grain of approved involvement, not just with Mary but in the situation that lead to his own tragedy. Whether you find the play's concluding sequences too much of a credibility stretch, O'Connell and Stears make the enormity of their psychological burdens hold your attention and leave you hoping that Thuna's poignant last scene will indeed be a salve for Mary and Danny's wounds.

By Lee Thuna
Directed by Judith Ivey
Cast: Charlotte Booker (Zelda), Ari Butler (Noel), Lily Corvo (Tammy), Liam Craig (Dr. John Oleander), Deirdre O'Connell (Mary), Danielle Skraastad (Liz Kruger), Rick Stear (Dr. Danny Lucchesi), and Catherine Wolf (Mother).
Sets: Neil Patel
Costumes: Gail Cooper-Hecht
Lights: Pat Dignan
Sound: T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella.
Running Time: 2 hours and 10 minutes, plus intermission
Cherry Lane Theatre, 38 Commerce Street (212) 239-6200
From 3/13/07 to 4/21/07; opening 3/21/07
Tuesday at 7pm, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm, with matinees Saturday at 2pm and Sunday at 3pm.
Tickets: $45 and $50
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at March 20th press performance
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