There’s a solemn, soul-searching quality on display in the moving, sharply-observed Harper Regan, Simon Stephens’s latest play to open in the U.S. in a production by the Atlantic Theater Company (whose take on Stephens’s Bluebird, starring Simon Russell Beale, was generally praised last year). Stephens, known mostly for his taut, tightly-plotted plays is in fine form here, exploring the suburban desperation — and one woman’s inadvertent quest for self-discovery, in which sex and death commingle uncomfortably.
Early on, our eponymous heroine sheds her London-based family chameleon-like and dashes off by night to her father’s bedside in Stockport in northern England. She’s recently found out her father has suffered from a hypoglycemic attack and is anxious to see him before it’s too late, but her pervy, almost menacing boss, in the play’s crackling opening scene, holds firm to his totalitarian position that Harper simply can’t take a single day off work for a family emergency. Facing the possibility of her firing, a prospect that could very well leave the debt-laden Regan clan in crisis, Harper chooses to prioritize family over her career in the hopes that her instincts toward filial piety might prove worthy.
What follows is an episodic journey through two days in Harper’s life, throughout which she tries to wrestle with the cruel realities of existence — poor timing, errors in judgment, disputed truths — and finds herself not always able to formulate clear answers for her quandaries. Having raced home to be with her father, Harper also ends up flirting (or more) with two disparate men and coming face-to-face with her mother, who’s always been a thorn in her side. It’s to Stephens’s credit as a writer that the typical midlife crisis points inherent to running-away-from-home stories are mostly avoided or, as in the case of infidelity, are ticked off in an engaging, original way. Watching Harper come up against her own expectations of herself it’s as if the dark night of each of our disparate souls has been set down on stage for examination, as if trapped in a snow globe, able to be shook and held up at different angles under the light.
Crucial to the play is a sympathetic actress in the title role, and Mary McCann fills the character’s shoes amiably. Though her take on the role is noticeably brighter than the brooding, eye-linered spin that Lesley Sharp gave Harper in the premiere production at the National Theatre’s Cottesloe Theatre in London, McCann compensates with an everywoman likability that’s difficult not to embrace as an audience member. Even as she smiles, it’s easy to spot the downturned curve just where Harper’s grin meets her cheek, and this makes her all the more three-dimensional.
Though the cast’s accents are all over the place (to dialect coach Ben Furey I say tsk tsk), the ensemble features a number of thoughtful performances, including Jordan Lage as Harper’s boss, Gareth Saxe as her husband Seth, and Mary Beth Peil as her steely mother Alison. As helmed by director Gaye Taylor Upchurch, the production feels well-paced for the most part despite a few unfocused moments. An initially three-tiered set designed by Rachel Hauck features layers that flip forward to open up the playing space as the piece goes along, an effective choice that amounts to the toppling of the play’s emotional walls.
By the play’s final scene, the stage is mostly laid bare as we’re shown the Regans’ backyard, where Harper, having prepared breakfast and juice, is kneeling gardening. Humbled as a result of the openness she’s found away from home, the journey she’s taken has not been in vain. In wrestling with her past, she’s been forced to face her own complexities: her marriage, her role as a mother, her strange obsession with a neighborhood student. By the time the play’s finished, the answers haven’t all been settled upon, but the first strands of synthesis have at least been spotted somewhere down the bend. Because Stephens as a writer is unwilling to set forth pat conclusions in the face of life’s mess, Harper Regan can feel meandering at times or unfocused, but that sense of realness is also its principal charm.