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A CurtainUp Review

The Knee Desires The Dirt

Women's Project and Productions has fostered the work of women playwrights for twenty years. This season its offerings fall under the thematic umbrella of "Out-of-Control Moms." In the first of these plays, The Knee Desires the Dirt, we meet three generations of Southern women who seem trapped in a pattern of unnourishing relationships with men and with each other.

Playwright Julie Hébert gives the familiar smart women-foolish choices pattern a double coat of dramatic paint. To start with she has set her generational drama in a Louisiana Cajun parish, with each of the three main characters at a perilous crossroad in her life: Althea (Lynn Cohen), is battling breast cancer; her thirty-seven-year old daughter Christine ( Barbara Gulan) loses herself in a dream world that costs her the teaching job she loves; thirteen-year-old Denise (Sarah Rose), failing to find help for dealing with her burgeoning sexuality, decides to find some answers through first-hand experience. To fully explore this feminine landscape Ms. Hébert intersperses the specifics of daily life with numerous dreamlike sequences. The balancing figures on this seesaw between poetical fantasy world and incapacitating reality are Jerry (Reed Birney ) and Christine's dead husband Xavier (Al Espinosa). Jerry, a loser and a user, epitomizes the stand-still world of compromise and helplessness. Xavier is a romantic ghost of long-gone dreams as well as the agent of change towards an emotionally sturdier futures.

Director Susana Tubert fluidly interconnects the abstract and real elements, with some of the sequences between Christine and Xavier as much poetry in motion as words. Peter Harrison's set design connects this sense of constantly intersecting inner and outer landscapes with an expressionistic evocation of the Bayou atmosphere and just enough realistic props to support the scenes in which Christine and Althea and young Denise try to grapple with their disconcertingly rudderless lives. The three women do solid work. Ms. Rose is a convincing thirteen-year-old, and Ms. Cohen is effective in her crusty old lady moments, though too overwrought in her symbolicscenes.

So much for the good news. While the play manages to balance abstraction and realism, the same can't be said for its tragic and humorous elements. To be sure there are occasional flashes of humor stemming from Althea's caustic wit, Denise's soliloquy about why she thinks she's going to have her first sexual experience, and Christine's wry response to Jerry's weak as water excuse for having a fling with a former girl friend. The overall mood, however, is too dark for the play to live up to the promotional copy that describes it as a "humorous coming of age story." The device of having the characters speak long passages addressed directly to the audiences adds to this aura of somberness. These monologues work occasionally for Christine when book in hand, she treats the audience members as if they were her students. Too much of this actor-to-audience communication, however, is predictably wearying. What at first sounds poetic eventually veers towards the ponderous. By the same token, the metaphor of Christine's lost and reclaimed foot (independence lost and regained ) is interesting. However, the business about the blue Louisiana dirt that gives the play its name and Althea her strength is rather muddled. (Many a play has floundered on just such a self-consciously intriguing title!).

Its flaws notwithstanding, this is a play that could pay dividends in post performance discussions. Mother and daughter (and grandmothers) can take advantage of the special mother/daughter Saturday (at 2) and Sunday (at 3) matinees offering two-for-the price of one tickets to those who fit the bill.

By Julie Hébert
Directed by Susanna Tubert
With Reed Birney, Lynn Cohen, Al Espinosa, Barbara Gulan, Sarah Rose
Set design: Peter Harrison
Costume design: Tracy Dorman
Lighting design: David Higham
Original Music/Sound design: Fabian Obispo
Women's Project and Productions at Women's Project Theatre, 424 West 55th Street
10/27/98-11/22/98; opened 11/04/98
Reviewed 11/04/98 by Elyse Sommer

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