At the beginning of Brian Watkins’ new play Epiphany, the sound of wind rushes through a country house, it starts to snow, and the glassware on the bar cart begins to rattle. Sinister tree branches poke into view and an enormous staircase dominates the room. Nine characters gather to share a meal and to hear a speech from a character who never appears.
It’s all very ominous. Tyne Rafaeli’s production is suffused with impending doom. John Lee Beatty’s set design could be the stage for an Agatha Christie-style murder mystery. It could even welcome something more supernatural, floating down the staircase or appearing at the window. Coupled with Isabella Byrd’s almost impossibly dim, candlelit lighting design, the audience is enveloped in the creaky, creepy old house and it lends a palpable tension to each character’s arrival.
It’s unfortunate that the play doesn’t match the production’s sense of anticipation. As its two intermission-less hours pass, the only revelation is that, despite its trappings, it’s a fairly traditional people-having-dinner play. Watkins does create nine interesting characters, but they all pretty much like each other, so there’s little conflict. He has the party’s hostess, Morkan (Marylouise Burke), sequester their phones in a box, which adds some discomfort, but even when one of the phones starts ringing, it’s not to deliver any plot development. It is perfectly fine for a play to exist merely on an exchange of ideas and a bottle of wine, but Epiphany constantly feels like it’s begging for something else–some event, some bang!, that never occurs.
The acting is excellent across the board, though. As Morkan, Marylouise Burke is energetic, some might say frantic. She runs up and down the staircase, in and out of the kitchen, desperately trying to make everyone feel comfortable. Morkan is met by disappointment several times and each instance tears into Burke, exposing the emptiness Morkan is trying to fill up with company. She has a singular ability to temper daffy energy with soulful truth and it’s on brilliant display here.It’s a complicated role–the kind that doesn’t come along often for an actor of Burke’s age.
Omar Metwally brings a groundedness to his psychologist character, Sam, that is in opposition to the “bitchy gay” energy of his husband, Taylor (David Ryan Smith). Taylor feels less developed than the other characters, subsisting only on quips and stirring the pot, but Smith gives him a likable charm. Heather Burns has a hilarious showpiece moment opposite Burke where her character Kelly is trying to make up a song she has never heard. Burns displays impeccable comedic timing and is a true highlight of the play.
Colby Minifie is tasked with playing the resident young person, largely there to react to things other people are saying. Her character, Loren, is a vegan, which leads to some tired jokes from the other characters and she’s given a well-trod speech about how we’re too tethered to our phones. Minfie’s performance is respectful of these out-of-touch tropes, playing them as simple facts rather than the commentary on Millennials that the play thinks they are.
Epiphany is enjoyable, quibbles aside. There are some strong laughs and Burke’s performance elicits some pathos. Perhaps it’s unfair to expect something else from the play based on what it looks and sounds like. I didn’t leave feeling unfulfilled, I left feeling like Epiphany happened in the environment of a different play. For something so talky, it doesn’t have anything revolutionary to say about people or life or art. But maybe it doesn’t have to. Maybe it’s enough for nine excellent actors to say some lines and pretend to eat a goose. I’ve certainly seen plays where less than that happened.