Kelli's friend Maria has set her up on a blind date with a guy named Arlin. As the lights come up on Commencing, we see her anxiously getting ready for her evening, fortifying herself with a long drink even as the doorbell rings.
But the person on the other side of the door is not the person Kelli is expecting. For one thing, she's a woman.
And so begins Jane Shepard's surprising and involving one-act play, which is being presented at FRIGID New York by Estrana Theatre Company. I don't want to reveal too much more about what happens, because the play's main theme is empathy, and that comes only from allowing yourself to listen to the person you're with and really hear and learn from what they have to say.
I will tell you that Shepard never takes an obvious or easy route as Kelli and Arlin transform their aborted date into something more meaningful. Notably, Kelli doesn't suddenly realize that she's actually gay, signaling a path toward a neat happy ending. Instead, these two women cover lots of ground about themselves, relationships, men, women, feminism, inequality, and other provocative topics.
Producer Emily Tuckman co-stars as Arlin, and she gives a layered, thoughtful performance as this woman who has been damaged by bad decisions in the past but remains hopeful enough to keep pushing ahead to make the best she can out of life. Sarah E. Jacobs doesn't seem to have quite found the balance in her character, rendering Kelli more uptight and less likable than I think the script calls for. I saw the second performance of a five performance run, and even that number may not be enough to get to the nuances and complexities of these women. Director Christina Massie hasn't seemed to master the pacing and tonal shifts—the first part of the play feels like it should be much faster, tighter, and funnier than it's rendered here, the better to contrast with the stronger emotions that arise from the second half of the piece, once the women start to confide in one another and move toward a bond that has the potential to be deep and rewarding.
I applaud Estrana for giving us a look at Commencing; Jane Shepard was a frequently produced member of NYC's indie theater scene a decade ago and I've missed seeing her work here. The physical production is impressive, especially by festival standards, and I hope that Tuckman and Jacobs get further under their characters' skins as the run proceeds.
One final thing: I wondered, given the non-gender-specific names of these two characters, if Shepard has a male variation of Commencing out there...