Several recent productions have replicated the experience of rising, ultimately debilitating panic. Would it be stretching to call this a pattern? Many a play works to build rising tension over its running time. That is a pretty common aim, however successfully it is pulled off. Tension, though, is one thing. These recent works have specifically echoed, in their form and construction, the rising and chaotic experience of a panic attack. Jeremy O. Harris’ “Daddy” is one; Daniel Fish’s reimagining of Oklahoma! is another.
Joining that list comes Will Arbery’s Plano, which Clubbed Thumb first produced in their 2018 Summerworks season and now brings back for an encore run at the Connelly Theater. The play is not explicitly concerned with the experience of panic – if the characters mention it, they do so only in passing. The form of Arbery’s discombobulating text, however, seems to mirror the experience of internal panic. Time loses its meaning; events fly by as an inconsequential blur; and the emotional weight of life seems distant.
If that sounds like a negative commentary on the play, it certainly is not. As much as it can be described, Plano concerns three sisters living in Dallas, Texas who are afflicted by a series of bizarre occurrences. Chief among them: the men in their lives appear to be multiplying. Anne has married Juan, a wayward (and likely closeted) partner who frequently disappears to Plano. Genevieve is married to Steve, but their partnership is collapsing. Finally Isabel becomes strangely intimate with Faceless Ghost, a disturbing spectre who haunts the proceedings. Soon Juan, Steve and (maybe?) the Ghost become multiple versions of themselves, each leading different lives – and hurting the sisters in different ways.
Difficult as the play is to describe, it is perhaps even more difficult to analyze. Arbery’s text is gut-bustingly funny, without question. The sisters are carefully defined and full of individual life. Arbery has warm empathy for everyone on stage – even Faceless Ghost, who seems the saddest, loneliest figure on stage. For all their doubling and tripling, the men are not the point here. Of the sisters, I felt particularly engaged with Isabel, a social worker whose Catholicism puts a distance between her and her siblings. Susannah Flood is devastating in the role, finding a consistent heart in Arbery’s sometimes distancing absurdities.
The manic energy of the play’s first half proves hard to come down from, and Plano struggles in its final third. Arbery tries to slow down to settle on a theme: the idea that these sisters share a curse. Whether it is a literal curse, or the curse of male trauma, is hard to say. Regardless there is likely no satisfying resolution to hit after all this chaos, and if there is, Arbery doesn’t find it.
Where Arbery proves at his strongest is not in finality, but the madness of just trying to get through. Much of the play is, thankfully, just that – three sisters grasping through as events surge by, most out of their control. As they gasp for air, new horrors just keep on hitting them. In this world, panic is not just a passing moment – it is a way of life.