Earnest `After*Life' burns with cool flame

Review: PS Lorio tries to do too much in this play about a burn victim and his dysfunctional family.

April 05, 2000|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

It's telling that the most effective scene in PS Lorio's earnest but over-loaded play, "After*Life," is nearly wordless.

Marc Hanson, a burn survivor, sits in his living room painfully doing physical therapy exercises while his father practices golf putts across the room.

A budding songwriter who has refused to touch the piano since his accident, Marc finally works up the nerve to walk over to the keyboard and hit a few notes. The sound, however, destroys his father's concentration, and the older Hanson storms off in a huff.

In terms of plot and characterizations, the scene offers a perfect illustration of the breach between father and son. In terms of text, the fact that this powerful scene is almost silent accentuates the overwriting in much of the rest of the script.

The play, making its premiere under Tammara J. Wright's direction at the Theatre Project, is structured as a series of scenes that reveal layer upon layer of dysfunctional domestic angst. Along the way, the playwright imparts a good bit of medical information on the physical and psychological struggles of burn patients.

And, to cover all the bases -- spiritual as well as physical and emotional -- she also includes sporadic appearances by a mysterious angel-like character named Kate.

The result may have the makings of a compelling drama, but in its current rambling form, it comes across more like a cross between a TV movie-of-the-week and an episode of "Touched by an Angel."

The basic story is partly told in flashback and partly told directly to the audience. Marc heroically saves his brother's life in a house fire. The fire leaves Marc critically burned, but his brother unscathed.

The brother -- a stereotyped dumb jock, who is nonetheless affably played by Cam Ailiff -- launches a career as a minor league baseball player. Meanwhile, Marc -- played by Ron Gregory as an anguished, frustrated artist -- broods through his painful recovery. His sister (Megan Wills) provides loving care; his thoughtless, self-absorbed father (Willy Richardson) exacerbates his suffering.

Introducing a non-realistic character into this rather two-dimensional mix was an admirable idea, reminiscent, at its best, of similar flights of fancy in the work of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel. But despite Alissa Ford's spunky performance as Kate, the character is more didactic than dramatic. "You have bigger problems than being burned," she lectures Marc. "You're afraid of success."

The playwright builds lots of mysteries into her play: What was the cause of the fire? Why and how did Marc's mother leave the family years ago? She also burdens her script with obvious symbolism. Marc refuses to put batteries into a clock, and Kate waters a wilting plant, saying, "I hate to see anything die of simple neglect."

Overall, Lorio, a Baltimore-based playwright previously represented at the Theatre Project by a one-act play in last season's "Queer Cafe '99," tries to do too much in "After*Life." She tells too many stories and ties up the loose ends too neatly. Despite all the tangents and mysteries, her play is ultimately predictable. This drama about coming through fire burns with a surprisingly cool flame.

`After*Life'

Where: Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St.

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $15

Call: 410-752-8558

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