Monday, September 20, 2010

Failure to Illuminate

Bottom of the World
A play by Lucy Thurber
Directed by Caitriona McLaughlin
Starring Crystal A. Dickinson (pictured), Brandon Dirden, Aubrey Dollar, Brendan Griffin, Kristin Griffith, Jessica Love, Peter Maloney, KK Moggie

September 3-October 3, 2010
Atlantic Theater Company Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street

The pain of losing a sibling is almost unimaginable, and Lucy Thurber’s Bottom of the World doesn't imagine it very well, rarely dramatizing the mindset of Abigail, who’s just lost her beloved half-sister Kate to a fire, in any believable way. Abigail tosses a lot of f-bombs around in the first few minutes of the play, which is supposed to show how angry and upset she is over the death of someone so close to her. Instead, it shows how little originality Thurber brings to her potentially devastating tale of moving on from grief.

Much of the play consists of Abigail and Kate (sitting in a tree) talking about their relationship and reading from Kate's book, published before she died. Set in historical New England (the time period is left deliberately vague, but it seems to be the late 19th century), the book's plot features a frontier family, whom we see in reenactments that alternate with vignettes of Abigail dealing with Kate's death and trying to get on with her life, helped by good friend Susan—who has her own wacky family situation to deal with—and new girlfriend Gina, whom she meets in a club one night.

Thurber moves back and forth between the two stories, but very little has any emotional resonance, and the fictional family's travails seem irrelevant in this diffuse context. Only at the end, when all of the characters get together to spout platitudes about dying, does everything and everyone merge, but it remains distant and, finally, cloying.

In Caitriona McLaughlin's indistinct production, the stage is littered with lumber and stacks of boxes, but the detritus remains a too obvious reminder of Abigail's emotional state. Two accomplished musicians sit up in the rafters strumming a banjo, fiddle and mandolin, but their bluegrass sound seems anachronistic in both old-time New England and present-day Manhattan.

Crystal A. Dickinson showed in Broke-ology that she can be a fiery, sympathetic actress, but we only see the surface of Abigail's self-pitying anger. As Kate, Jessica Love is as perky as the dead heroine of The Lovely Bones, another story about a young woman's “life” after death. Of those with dual roles, only Kristin Griffith (as two mothers more than a century apart) shows any spark or personality. But Thurber is mainly to blame for the actors' failure to illuminate her ill-conceived characters.
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