The “strange country” of Anne Adams’ new play is not about an unusual landscape or a new travel destination. While the single apartment that the play takes place in is, at first glance, unremarkable, it ends up transforming into a moral proving ground, one that challenges both its characters and its audience.
We open with Darryl (Sidney Williams) who lies asleep, beer cans and half-drunken bottles of whiskey strewn about his mustard-colored living room. His short-lived solitariness is quickly interrupted when his hard-nosed sister, Tiffany (Vanessa Vaché) enters with her girlfriend Jamie (Bethany Geraughty), by all outward indications an overly-sheltered, highly sensitive thirtysomething who probably has Purell on a keychain. Jamie is in town for her and Darryl’s parents’ re-commitment ceremony, and Darryl is refusing to go.
What ensues involves verbal sparring and revelations about the characters’ backgrounds. We learn that Darryl is bipolar and drinks because he has for years been legally blocked from seeing his son, mostly due to court testimony from his father saying that he’s mentally unfit. However, through this progressive deepening of the characters, our sympathies shift, and morality gets muddy. It is this moral mud that sticks to the mind in the hours and days after seeing the play.
The play, Adams’ first to be produced (she comes from an acting background), challenges every first impression that it gives us. It asks us to not judge people by their actions without knowing the reasons behind what they do. Darryl at first elicits little sympathy; we make judgements before we learn of his difficult background. After that revelation, it becomes much easier to sympathize. Something similar happens with Jamie. It’s like when you make a joke about somebody and then seconds later find out that something really, really horrible recently happened to them. If only you’d known that before you spoke!
The revelations in the play transform our perceptions of its characters. In fact, the play doesn’t have a large amount of plot (it all takes place in a 24 hour span, and all in the same living room), preferring character development over plot development. The trio of actors take us through these transformations beautifully. Williams always seems to strike a balance of sympathy and tactlessness. Geraughty pulls a complete 180 with her character, whose actions are supremely difficult to sympathize with but who nonetheless never loses us. Vaché commands the stage, owning it and her character. They are all served well by Stull’s direction.
As impressively rendered as the character transformations are, the play itself creates slight issues when it comes to its characters’ motives. Because we find out so much that fundamentally changes the characters as the story goes on, they will at times make decisions fueled by motives that are unclear to us until a few scenes later. While this is not inherently a problem (in some ways it’s realistic), it does distract at certain moments. For instance, Jamie, who spends the entire beginning of the play physically repulsed by the state of Darryl’s apartment (and Darryl himself), sneaks back into his apartment hours after their initial meeting. While the motives are eventually explained (her character’s background is drastically different than we’ve been led to believe), it takes a while to get the explanation, and I couldn’t help finding myself taken out of the play at times, thinking “Oh, that character would never do that!”
Where Strange Country is most successful is in its refusal to offer black and white moral answers to any of the challenges that its characters face. The characters try to make morally correct decisions, but more often than not, their challenges can only be solved in ways that hurt someone else. Is it selfish for Tiffany to want Darryl to go to the ceremony and support their mother, even when Darryl has every right to avoid being there and seeing his father? The play’s moral quandaries never have clear “right” answers, which makes it satisfyingly challenging.
Strange Country ruthlessly defies our surface-level assumptions of its characters, proving that our first impressions of people rarely even begin to tell the whole story.
Strange Country is on until 13th August 2016. Click here for more information.