nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
October 12, 2012
It takes only one event to trigger a life-time of change. In Harper Regan, Simon Stephens’ strange and admirable play newly-arrived from the National Theatre in London, the incident gives voice to eleven fine actors and a distinctive design team as the eponymous protagonist takes us on her eye-opening journey from Uxbridge, a suburb of London, to Stockport, a blue collar town near Manchester, where Harper grew up and her parents still live. She is searching for truth.
Not unlike Voltaire’s Candide, the character Harper Regan begins naïvely. She is snuggly ensconced in her own optimistic world. She lives with her loving husband, Seth, and precocious, college-aged daughter, Sarah. And, then she finds out that her father is dying. Unable to get permission to leave from her boss Mr. Barnes, she takes off without telling anyone, including her family. Along the way, she encounters a number of characters, each of whom reveals a nefarious world she has blocked out. By the time she reaches her father, he has already died.
This is not so much a give-away as one more step in Harper’s awakening. Her flight to her father is understandable; not telling her husband and daughter is initially perplexing, given the ostensibly tight relationship between them. But it appears that running away is the last refuge for an optimist who is slowly suffocating. She is bound on one side by an unreasonable boss, confined to Uxbridge by circumstances of her husband’s making, and tied to heady financial obligations by her college-bound daughter. Here, Stephens shows superb craft, revealing only what he has to in order to propel us on the journey with his heroine. Her flight seems like the last gasp before acknowledging real adulthood. His Harper Regan is complex: sensitive, vulnerable, aggressive, and often at a loss for words when she is up against self-involved, thoughtless boors, such as her boss Barnes. She craves simple connections like nice smells, appealing sights, something real to touch.
Gaye Taylor Upchurch directs this engaging tale with a sure hand. It is a production that is both rich and spare. Each encounter provides its own arc with an eye-opening climax. Tobias, a young black college student listens to Harper, and accepts what she tells him without judgment. Played by Stephen Tyrone Williams, the character is sensitive and appealing. And, when Upchurch has Harper rub her fingers through his hair, the sensation is so great I wanted Harper, portrayed with great sensitivity by Mary McCann, to embrace Tobias completely. Harper’s meeting with the hospital nurse, played with great empathy by Mahira Kakkar, is plaintive, making her violent run-in at a bar with the ne’er-do-well Mickey not so much surprising as informative. So, this is how far Harper has come in her worldly education. Peter Scanavino is terrific as this greasy, drug-addled, sexual aggressor. Harper learns a great deal from this experience, and her next encounter is of her own choosing – one James Fortune, played smoothly by Christopher Innvar.
Stephen’s dialog is an interesting mix. His monologues amplify the self-serving characters. Harper often interjects personal questions at inappropriate moments, highlighting her quest to connect to others, or to find out who they really are. The dialog seems to become increasingly direct as the journey progresses. Meeting with her estranged mother (played with unapologetic wickedness by Mary Beth Peilafter) after a two-year lapse is honesty at its starkest and perhaps cruelest. Harper is forced to see the truth of her life. Any love or kindness in her mother is reserved for her new and much younger husband and his employee, portrayed by John Sharian and Vandit Bhatt, respectively.
The tone in Harper Regan is matter-of-fact, which makes it all the more Candide-like. Supported by a smart set designed by Rachel Hauck, three progressively taller walls that resemble granite span the stage, providing a winding path for Harper’s journey. As Harper travels, the walls fall away until she reaches the tallest and most formidable one of all, her mother’s home in Stockport. However, once the wall turns, it reveals Harper’s backyard in Uxbridge – a welcoming, warm garden, not quite lush with flowers. Harper is contemplative as her family is nestled around an outdoor table laden with breakfast goodies. For the garden and her family to flourish, Harper must work to cultivate them.
Dramatic lighting by Jeff Croiter traced Harper’s trek and illuminated the otherwise monochromatic stage. Sarah J. Holden designed costumes.