nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman Beaudin
July 15, 2007
It's no mystery why autobiographical works are so appealing to writers and other artists. One basic tenet of all writing is to "write about what we know," and we are instant experts on ourselves. Additionally, one basic tenet of enjoying a piece of art is that we can connect it in some way to ourselves or our experiences; thus, our own autobiography is immensely interesting!
Unfortunately, however, though the genre of autobiography is so appealing and so easy to find ourselves doing, it is immensely difficult to do well. The same life experiences and feelings that an autobiographical artist is so attached to may mean nothing to audience members if they are not invited to relate to a larger human truth in the feelings. The details of an artist's life can seem confusing to an audience member who doesn't know the artist, but seem so clear to the artist herself who naturally fills in the gaps.
The autobiographical Transit is a one-woman show in which Mary Jane Wells recounts the main events of her life from her childhood to the present day and discusses her feelings about those events. The story is roughly held together by the themes of her relationship with her mother, her search for religious or spiritual belief, her wish to be an actress, and her identity as a wife and independent person. If that list seems long, it is because Wells covers a tremendous amount of ground in this show, jumping from subject to subject.
In the program notes, Wells writes that she was inspired to write her own life story after seeing Swimming to Cambodia on television. Indeed, the format of Transit is similar to Spalding Gray's format. Wells performs her show solo, speaking directly to the audience. The set, a cushiony chair and a table holding a glass of water and a fan, clearly makes reference to Gray's famous set. I never had the fortune to see Gray perform, so I cannot say what he did that made his shows so entertaining and successful that thousands of fans wanted to hear what he had to say. I can say that I found Wells's show—at 90 minutes without intermission!—long and in need of more focus and drama.
The director, Wells's son Ben Sander, allows her to remain in her chair throughout the show without getting up or moving about—like someone talking in a living room. Though Wells seems comfortable and calm as an experienced stage actress, she could do more physically to bring her story to life.
If Wells is attached to this work, and she mentions that she feels wonderful about creating her own work to do, I would suggest making it half the length, choosing one central theme to focus on, and dramatizing the events surrounding that theme in some way.
It's clear that Wells has a lot of heart and a lot of investment in the events of this piece. With the discipline of detachment, she can make something successful out of this material!