By Stacy Campbell Remy
Lori Fischer, a gifted Southern playwright working in New York, sheds light on social issues in “Petie.” She shifts back and forth between present and past, recounting the journey of a mother and daughter in the decade since the death of a 10-year-old boy.
The play weaves together Petie’s fate and themes that help define the Southern experience, perhaps that of society as a whole: faith and religion, guilt and hypocrisy, redemption, grief and loss, gun violence, domestic abuse and mental illness. The costuming of Daddy, who wears an army jacket, hints at the issue of post-traumatic stress disorder.
We become engrossed in the story of Bonnie, husband Daddy, young Petie, daughter Jesse (both as a teenager and as a young adult) and neighbor Stace. At the grocery store where Jesse works, we meet her best friend, KM, and co-workers and customers, who are struggling with issues of their own. These characters become real, thanks to expressive performances by the cast.
Caryn Crye stood out as Jesse: Her facial expressions and body language communicated so much, and her talks with KM (Iesha Nyree) had a camaraderie that drew you into their conversations, as if you were seated at the table with them. Fischer’s portrayal of Bonnie is as worthy of accolades as her writing. We watch empathetically as Bonnie struggles for meaning, trying to reconcile her hope and faith with events in her life – first by not facing anything, then through a cathartic experience brought about by Jesse’s violence.
Southern culture shines through from the beginning, beyond the deviled-egg tray and references to sweet tea. The playwright captures the intimacy, spoken and unspoken, in the relationships she has created among characters.
The intimate theater helps her make her points. In fact, it’s an uncomfortable setting at times: A scene between KM and her abusive boyfriend Rick (Robert Lee Simmons), demonstrating the dynamics at play in their new relationship, is difficult to witness. We cringe as we watch Daddy (Nathan Rouse) softly murmur words of love to Bonnie, gently cupping her enraptured face, then insult her seconds later and clear the table with his fists, to the shock and awe of his family.
Rouse and Simmons were so effective in their vivid portrayals of violent men that the other three male actors, who didn’t have a lot of dialogue, became nice guys we were glad to see. Ten-year-old Walker Dixon portrayed Petie with quiet confidence.
The actors made the most of the intimate setting: When Bonnie pulls up a chair, it feels like she’s telling her story to audience members in the front row. If you are used to big productions where you watch from afar, the experience of seeing a play in this theater could be an interesting change.
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