Undermain’s somber, beguiling Really

A middle-aged woman visits a studio where a pretty, taciturn young lady has invited her to sit for a portrait. Tension is palpable. The older woman does most of the talking, but that’s not surprising. She’s uncomfortable, and the photographer is not doing much to put her at ease. Playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury (author of Really) doles out information gradually. The more we gather, the less obvious the motives of these two women. The more complicated the nature of their connection. The younger woman climbs up on crates, chairs, wielding her camera. She poses her subject, asking her to turn, move her feet. You might not imagine that moving to accommodate your photographer could be so exacting. So difficult. Drury exploits the meticulous demands of this situation to heighten the extreme discomfort between the two. Like Pinter or Albee, much of what we ascertain comes from inference.

The lives of these two women intersect at their relationship with another photographer named Calvin. Until I checked the program (afterwards) I supposed it was a mother and daughter-in-law. The beautiful young Asian woman is Calvin’s girlfriend, the other is his mother. Calvin is dead. Far too soon. Drury’s approach to this cunning, subdued, bleak drama asks us to search for clues. The animosity and frustration and despair leaks out before we get explanations. When Calvin appears, it takes a bit to realize we are sharing in the women’s memories, and not consortium with his ghost. We see the mother fidgeting and digging for pills. We see the young woman bringing her water, sometimes barely concealing impatience and anger. There’s a kind of dry, raw, palpable quality to Really. We don’t feel especially compassionate towards these women, but neither does their behavior seem inexplicable or off-putting. We’re caught in this awkward conjunction, too, but we understand.

As we witness past episodes between Calvin and his lover (apprentice?) and his mother, his less appealing traits become salient. The first time he shares a drink with this younger photographer, he’s coy, manipulative, predatory. The episodes of photographing his mother feel like retribution or tantrums. Even for a brilliant photographer his behavior is harsh, controlling, temperamental. Drury

gives us enough to understand that when Calvin gets the leverage to work through childhood sleights, he uses it. It’s not unusual to find creative prodigies indulged (consider Hitchcock, Picasso, Berryman) and Drury demonstrates this in the way Calvin treads upon those we’d imagine dearest to him. Even if he’s offering the gift of authenticity, he seem degrades others. Calvin finds ways of diminishing without seeming aggressive.

Really orchestrates a cluster of elements within the context of photography, and how conflicting perceptions shape our lives. How love can be impure and off-kilter. These two women could easily provide solace, but are submerged in their unresolved issues with Calvin. There’s a pervasive realm of crisp, understated contemplation, but underneath there’s pain and isolation and resentment. A less confident play might have attempted to reconcile these two lost, alienated, overwhelmed protagonists. But even when the younger woman begins to spill deeper ruminations, it ends before anything’s decided. You might find yourself returning to this somber, enervating collision of souls long after the lights have finally been extinguished.

Undermain Theatre presents Really, playing April 12th-May 6th, 2017. 3200 Main street, Dallas, Texas 75226. 214-747-5515. www.undermain.org.

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