April 9, 2013

‘Petie’ has heart, but not enough shape

The well-acted local premiere of this dark family drama reveals its structural weaknesses.

There is a potentially powerful play inside “Petie,” a new work that stars its playwright, Lori Fischer. But its Charlotte premiere by Starving Artist Productions feels more like a workshop than a finished product. Heavy-handed foreshadowing dominates the action and weakens the climax. Dialogue strays from touching to leaden, and the secondary plot remains a distraction.

The action floats between the present and the day Petie died. Fischer plays Bonnie, the mother of Petie and his now teenage sister, Jesse. It’s almost the 10th anniversary of Petie’s death; Jesse begs her mother to reveal the details of that horrific day, but she refuses. The wild card is Daddy, a crazy religious fanatic who returned from prison shortly before Petie’s death and was later locked up again.

Jesse’s life has been on hold since that fateful day. She reacts by avoiding men, being hypersensitive to situations that hint of abuse and rejecting religion, which is the founding principle of every other person in her family.

Bonnie rarely leaves the house and is toying with taking Reverend Spark’s advice to add one new thing to her life each week. (This week, it is Bartlett pears.) Jesse works at a Bi-Lo with her best friend, KM, who is dating a bully.

“Petie” tells more than it shows. It touches on a myriad of important subjects in ways so obvious that we hear the words, rather than feel them. There are too many scenes and too many characters. The foreshadowing is relentless. There is no background music, but scene changes are marked by sounds projected from a speaker: the trickling of water, the sighs of a child. That is intriguing at the play’s beginning but tiresome by the end.

At center stage is a rowboat, which we know is the scene of the crime. To the left is a dining room set as fatigued as the family that owns it. To the right is a shifting depiction of Bi-Lo, which goes from the check-out counter to the break room.

A few simple changes would make a big difference in the play’s effectiveness.

Petie is played by Rock Hill fifth-grader Walker Dixon. He has a lot of lines, and he memorized them well. However, his mother and sister have deep Southern accents, and he doesn’t.

In the break room, the best friends smoke. KM carries a cellphone in a pink cover that looks suspiciously like an iPhone. But in the era of iPhones, what company allows smoking inside break rooms where people eat?

Acting is not the problem. Robert Lee Simmons is a despicably believable bully, and Nathan Rouse is terrifying as deranged Daddy. Caryn Crye’s Jesse is sweet and charming, particularly when playing her younger self. Stephanie DiPaolo has comic chops as Bonnie’s best friend. Fischer is a passionate actress, and her role is spiced with religious songs that are plaintive and moving.

“Petie” needs a good editor to get rid of the extraneous elements and concentrate on the meat – the terror of living with a crazy man, the hypocrisy of religion and the repercussions of ignoring awful truths, in the hope that what is not spoken will be forgotten. It never is.

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