The device of a writer writing about a contemplative writer writing about writing is well-established in literary fiction, but less so onstage. After last month’s Destiny Estimate, Emma Goidel’s THE GAP (now in production by Azuka Theatre) marks the second such piece by a local playwright in recent weeks.
As a trend, it’s unwelcome (who wants to read another novel about a novelist, or that creative stand-in, the painter?), but taken individually, the technique has merit. In THE GAP, Lee (Maggie Johnson) is a playwright trying to understand what trauma caused her sister Nicole (Alice Yorke) to believe in the illogic of astrology, pseudoscience, and alien abduction. As the truth is revealed (we guess it a long long time before Lee does), the emotional resonance is heightened by the conceit that we are watching a playwright come to terms with her own trauma.
Lee does so by recruiting Nina (Ciera Gardner), an acting student, to reenact and improvise scenes from her childhood and recent breakup. At a family dinner, Lee enlists her mother (Genevieve Perrier, excellent in this and all her varied roles) and Nicole’s boyfriend (Jaime Maseda, whose hilarious scenes with Yorke as the couple “it hurts other people to be around” are the show’s highlight).
By revealing the plot through meta layers of acting within acting (perhaps one too many layer?), Goidel reinforces the idea that we’re watching self-discovery through art. She shows how childhood trauma, even if unremembered, can affect decades of adult life.
Director Rebecca Wright successfully navigates the meta layers, aided by simply inventive set design by Apollo Mark Weaver: A table serves as a dining room table, a car, and even a fishbowl. Goidel’s sprinkles her clever script with true-feeling nougats of conversation, like when characters ponder why they’d want to visit family in the suburbs or field naive comments about lesbianism or playwriting (“you should write about Aunt So-and-so. She was a kept woman!”).
But we sympathize when Nina quits Lee’s play because she doesn’t want to provide free therapy. Too often the characters explain and analyze themselves and each other onstage (“I don’t feel what other people feel. I feel nothing”; “Maybe you’re meant to be alone so you don’t hurt other people like you let her get hurt.”)
We’ve guessed the big plot reveal from the opening scene and we grow to understand the damage it has caused these characters. THE GAP loses power, and the immediacy it’s worked hard to create, when it feels the need to spell out its tragic message.
[Azuka Theatre at Louis Bluver Theatre at the Drake, 302 S. Hicks Street] November 1-19, 2017; azukatheatre.org/the-gap