nytheatre.com review by David Pumo
February 3, 2005
Kim Merrill’s engaging new play, Finding Claire, is a moody, wrenching, and often touching look into the emotional lives of four women, each in her own way struggling to find her identity. Rachel, a wealthy young New York City dancer, goes on a search for her birth mother when her adopted mother is killed in an accident. Her adopted father has been out of the picture since she was very young, and she now wishes to fill this void for family connection by reaching out to the biological family she has never met. She somehow gets the address of her birth mom, Claire, and the two begin a relationship through letters.
Claire, it turns out, lives in poverty in an old farmhouse in upstate New York with her invalid mother, Lily, and her fifteen-year-old daughter, Bridget, who has just revealed that she is pregnant. When Bridget insists, against Claire’s wishes, that she plans to give her unborn baby up for adoption, Claire decides to tell her about Rachel, the child she regrets giving up, and shows Bridget the many letters she has received. To Bridget’s dismay, Claire has never bothered to tell Rachel that she has a sister. Bridget decides to start her own letter-writing relationship with her New York City sister, and eventually invites her to surprise Claire with a visit.
But Claire is not ready to be confronted this closely with her mistakes, or with the harsh reality of her impoverished life. Rachel’s adopted mother ran an art foundation, and Rachel has been around the world. Claire, on the other hand, is trapped in a broken-down house where there once was a farm, and creates art of her own by chipping away at large rocks when she is angry or frustrated.
As the four women are forced to confront each other, layers of secrets are revealed, and we learn how each woman has searched for freedom, and how each has been trapped by her own generational circumstances and moralities. With clean, insightful direction by Susan Einhorn, all four actresses rise to the level demanded by Merrill’s script, rich with very real family dialogue and many emotional moments for each character. Fiery Shana Dowdeswell, as the young Bridget, vividly expresses both her deep frustration at the lot life has dealt her and the youthful hope that there might still be a way to escape. Tony-winner Helen Gallagher, as grandmother Lily, is both infuriating in her constant demanding gloom, and completely sympathetic as the woman who must witness yet another generation make the same mistake. Geneva Carr is charming and intelligent as the wealthy Rachel, who realizes she has taken on more than she anticipated in her well-meaning attempt to help her newfound family in complete crisis.
The character of Claire is probably the one who goes through the most self-reflection, and experiences the most change. It is her responsibility to keep this household from falling apart—her lost child who has unexpectedly returned, and her young daughter who is about to make the same tragic mistake that she has always regretted. It is, in fact, Claire’s world that the show is most about, as is made clear by Ursula Belden’s evocative, multi-leveled set, completely covered in textured gray canvas. It is a world of hard stone, like the stone Claire chips away at to get away from—or get to—something that always seems to elude her. Deirdre Madigan gives a powerful performance in this emotionally demanding role. She is usually restrained, as if she knows she might easily explode if she is not careful. And yet there is so much going on in her small body movements and subtle facial expressions. When she breaks down upon receiving the letter from the daughter she has never known, it is all the more powerful a moment because, even at this early moment in the play, Madigan has well established that Claire is not the type of woman to be easily broken down. When she finally turns to face her long-lost daughter for the first time, it is a breathtaking moment, both beautiful and terrifying, full of desperate longing and deep resentment.
The only thing that bothers me about the play is its sometimes condescending view of poverty. The daughter who was adopted seems to have led a close-to-perfect life simply by virtue of her money and the freedom and experiences it has afforded her. When she uses her money to buy some “freedom” for her new family—I won’t give away all the details here—the path to spiritual discovery and emotional growth is suddenly set in rapid motion for her sister, mom, and grandmother. Is it really that simple? Is money really the key to self-understanding and the contentment it brings? Are people in poverty not capable of achieving similar spiritual and emotional growth?
The play, nonetheless, is a mostly-satisfying journey. It is a rocky road, with many moments that all families will recognize, and lessons we all need to learn, for in the end, it is Claire who finally begins to find Claire.