The closing metaphor in Rebecca Gilman's ironically titled The Glory of Living at Circuit Playhouse is as unsubtle and effective as a slug to the back of the head. We are treated to the sights and sounds of Lisa (played by Erin McGhee, pictured), a remorseless killer on death row as she delights in learning to play "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star" on a toy piano her father gave her before he died. Daddy just gave her the piano, you see. He never actually taught her how to play.
And so it goes with poor Lisa, who came up like a weed, with no reason to believe there was anything more to life than watching TV, fetching cold beers for drunk men, and staying out of the way while her mama turned tricks with the strangers she met talking on the CB radio. Is it any wonder that little greasy-haired Lisa ran off with the first perverted piece of car-thieving trash who paid her what sounded like a sincere compliment?
As Gilman's occasionally humorous tragedy plinks to a false and fatalistic happy ending, it's difficult for even the most strident anti-death-penalty activist not to view Lisa's seemingly harsh sentence as something akin to a doctor-assisted suicide. Yes, her newfound capacity to learn may evoke pity, but it does nothing to erase or mitigate the horrors she's witnessed, let alone the ones she's facilitated.
In her directorial debut, Playhouse on the Square regular Courtney Oliver delivers the sordid goods, coaxing honest, unaffected performances from a tight ensemble of 10 actors. The bright-white lights under which she and lighting designer Ben Wheeler have chosen to tell Gilman's story excuse the playwright's many dark excesses. The chains, the beatings, the nudity, the pedophilia, and ultimately the murders all become clinical exhibits locked inside a safe, sterile environment. It's an aesthetic device that keeps the characters interesting even when the storyline ventures deep into cliché.
Gilman's hard-boiled story echoes the perverse and brutal kitsch of writers like Jim Thompson and Denis Johnson, but the shady Alabamans populating The Glory of Living are all about a meth habit away from either caricature or believability. We've seen all of these characters and many of these situations before (and better) in Bonnie & Clyde, Natural Born Killers, Heathers, and, to some extent, Craig Brewer's controversial but decidedly less perverse Black Snake Moan. The only thing Gilman's play has over these cinematic entertainments is a healthy lack of twisted romanticism and the living presence of the actors. Perhaps that's enough.
Actress Tracie Hansom, who has built her reputation playing saints, princesses, and unruly pieces of trash, is in her element as Lisa's mom, an aging lot lizard who's entirely too trashed to get out of bed and ply her trade at the truck stops. Hansom shrieks and moans with revolting eroticism while Lisa sits balled up watching TV with Clint (Aaron Lamb), a charismatic child molester who will marry the 15-year-old and use her warped worldview and low self-esteem to turn her into his personal procurer as well as the person responsible for hushing up Clint's victims for good.
McGhee and Lamb play well enough off one another, though there are mercifully fleeting moments when the couple morph into an unfunny (though no less over-the-top) version of H.I. and Edwina McDunnough from the Coen Brothers' criminal farce Raising Arizona. What is ultimately missing from the picture is a motivation for the crimes. It's not so hard to understand how the unloved and undereducated daughter of a whore might end up in a murderously codependent relationship, but are we really to believe that Clint's oversized but underperforming member is the only reason for his bizarre needs and brutal behavior?
Gilman is a much more complex writer than The Glory of Living might lead one to believe. Although it seems as if the playwright is asking us to reconsider the worth of the human flotsam she has presented, it's another message that rings through loud and clear.
Lisa tells her attorney (played with heart and awkward charm by Scott Duff) that some people were just meant to die. The young girls Lisa picked up and bumped off for her husband were foolish enough to get into a car with a stranger. As McGhee's Lisa glows with joy over the simplistic tunes she's learned to play on her toy piano, it becomes painfully apparent that for all her wasted potential, she was meant to die. If it hadn't been the government doing the killing, it would have been Clint.
Through May 20th