Struggling for survival in bleakly comic 'Escape'

February 19, 1993|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

Plays set in kitchens have become a cliche in this country, but Canadian playwright George F. Walker explodes that cliche in "Escape From Happiness," his harrowing comedy about love, families and survival, which is receiving its first major United States production--and a stunningly powerful one--at Center Stage.

Like the setting, Walker's text is not without antecedents. There are suggestions of Ibsen in the central character, a housewife named Nora; of Chekhov in her three daughters; and more than a suggestion of Shepard in the rampant domestic violence and heightened profanity.

However, "Escape From Happiness" is something else entirely -- a no-holds-barred violent farce, which, as befits its bleakly comic subject matter, has been gloriously directed to within an inch of its life by Irene Lewis.

But back to the kitchen. The exterior walls in designer Michael Yeargan's set are crumbling, and there's a huge photo of a building being demolished just outside the kitchen window, but the kitchen itself is solid, a bulwark against the outside world. And that's exactly how Nora (Lois Smith) views her embattled family. Survival is not an individual issue to her; her reaction to any crisis is to pull her family together so they can gain strength from each other.

And make no mistake. In this family, individual survival is almost always threatened. On this particular day, Nora's daffy, babbling middle daughter (Alexandra Gersten), has abandoned her husband and toddler and wants to move back home. Nora's younger son-in-law (William Youmans), has been beaten by thugs, and when the police arrive to investigate, they find hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of drugs in the basement and take Nora in for questioning.

Meanwhile, Nora's husband (James Noah) -- an ex-cop whose violent tendencies once led him to attempt to burn the house down with the family in it -- has recently returned home after 10 years and appears to be dying. Nora permits him to take up residence, but refuses to acknowledge him as her spouse.

Lewis' skilled cast portrays this melange of marginal characters with hilarity and a high degree of physicality. It's a tough bunch in which to stand out, but as the oldest sister, a high-powered bisexual lawyer named Elizabeth, Baltimore-born actress Pippa Pearthree is a powder keg of intensity. "She's worse than guys I've met in prison who kill people with saws," says Rolly (Dan Moran), a small-time crook Elizabeth kidnaps and terrorizes in an attempt to clear her mother's name.

Elizabeth is the polar opposite of her cheerfully laid-back mother, Nora, who is played with gentle looniness by Smith. But Nora is the glue that bonds the women in this family together, and that bond is so strong, it rightfully earns the respect and even envy of the male characters; and it brings a final note of hope to this troubled household. (Albeit, this note -- like some of play's earlier philosophical passages -- is a bit too didactically expressed.)

Center Stage co-produced "Escape From Happiness" with the Yale Repertory Theatre, where it will have a subsequent one-month run. Although Walker is regarded as Canada's leading playwright, he has remained surprisingly little-known in the States. One reason seems to have been the lack of a sufficiently high-profile, high-caliber production. If so, Center Stage's "Escape From Happiness" could put an end to Walker's escape from fame.

"Escape from Happiness"

Where: Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 7:30 p.m., with matinees most Saturdays and Sundays at 2 p.m. Through March 14.

Tickets: $10-$35.

Call: (410) 332-0033.

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