A reclusive man, middle-aged and living in the jungle of Costa Rica, is awakened by the arrival of the motormouthed 17-year old niece he hasn’t seen in almost a decade. While this could easily be the setup for a funny slapstick comedy, with Slowgirl, playwright Greg Pierce decided to go a very different (though sometimes still funny) direction.
Pierce, in town Friday night for the performance of Slowgirl at PURE Theatre, says, “I don’t give a lot of stage directions, so seeing different productions is something I’ve loved.” In PURE Artistic Director Sharon Graci’s hands, the play is an exploration of two very specific people’s relationship, as Sterling (the uncle) and Becky (the niece) slowly get to know one another after years apart. But it’s also an investigation of the different kinds of relationships people can have with uncomfortable truths.
Becky, we quickly learn, isn’t in Costa Rica purely for a social call —she’s been suspended from school and is under investigation by law enforcement for her role in the drunken injury of a special needs classmate, Marybeth (called Slowgirl by Becky and her classmates). She’s convinced her parents don’t believe her when she says she didn’t do it, and it’s unclear whether they’ve sent her off to visit Sterling for her sake or their own.
As the play unfolds, the audience learns more about both Becky, a compulsive sharer who admits that “stuff just, like, comes into my head, and I say it." Her sharing leads to most of the play’s laughs, which feel entirely natural and never distract from, or lessen, the weightier elements. As she grows more comfortable with Sterling, Becky shares more about the night of Marybeth’s injury, but also more
Her interest is not entirely self-directed, however, and she also draws information out from Sterling, regarding his failed marriage, questionable business practices that led to his own trouble with the law, and his damaged relationship to Becky’s mother and father.
The role of Becky calls for enough range to sell the popular-girl teenaged patois while also instilling the character with depths of feeling and insight not immediately apparent. Sullivan Hamilton brings life to the sing-song cadences, casual references to things her uncle probably doesn’t want to hear, and the heavier questions Marybeth’s accident is forcing her to ask. Hamilton does a wonderful job creating a truly human Becky, one with inconsistencies, but who is always consistently herself. When her showpiece moment comes, towards the end of the play, Hamilton handles it with firm control, even as Becky is nearly losing it.
Laurens Wilson, in the role of Sterling, is also impressive, though his performance is more subdued. He wisely stays away from playing the role as a spaced-out traveler or wise sage, and instead plays Sterling as a sad, somewhat defeated man who has possibly given up on finding fulfillment, deciding he’ll settle for some peace and quiet.
Like Becky, Sterling opens up over the course of the play, and Wilson does an expert job of reflecting his growing commitment to take an active part in helping his niece make sense of her predicament, and eventually in helping her address it.
The set is sparse, presumably reflecting Sterling’s desire for simplicity and clarity. Since the show is a two-hander, and consists mostly of Becky and Sterling talking to one another, it also serves the material in that both actors have plenty of room to move, and their very different ways of doing so (Sterling calm and measured, Becky nervous and impulsive). Lighting is tasteful, effective, and largely unobtrusive. Sound is executed well, and comes to the fore at a few appropriate moments, but works to support the material rather than distracting from it.
Overall, the approach to the material is a wonderful fit. The actors are given space, in every sense, to develop and explore their characters’ relationship, as well as the similarities they couldn’t possibly have expected to discover. When the lights come up after the final scene, the audience has gotten to know two people who are very flawed, but incredibly redeemable. And whatever lies in store, we’re rooting for them both.