nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
April 26, 2012
Patricia Buckley’s Evolution is a pleasure to watch: a well-executed, elegant piece of theatrical craft in all its production elements, from Buckley’s performance to director Michele Chivu’s staging, from Jim Findlay’s clever set and stunning video projections to composer Marc Mellits’s score. Nonetheless, the script doesn’t entirely reach the level of the production. There’s something undeniably evocative, even haunting, in the themes and ideas at the core of the piece—it’s about transformation and loss, about evolution as both science and metaphor—but I didn’t feel like the ideas were fully expressed in character and story. All the piece’s performance and design elements are lovely, but the writing didn’t entirely come together for me.
The multi-character solo play focuses on a family: two adult daughters and their mother (a nurse also plays a minor, primarily expository, role). When the sisters were children, Minnie was the high-flying over-achiever and Pammy a handful of trouble; as adults, the pattern has been reversed. Minnie, after a series of mental health problems, is suffering badly from depression and has moved home to live with her mother. There’s a rueful running joke about the names of all the meds Minnie’s on, things like Perfectalox and Successeril—but even with all the drugs, she’s not doing well, and some of her behaviors in particular are alarming her mother: hoarding tendencies, especially of empty water bottles; excessively long baths and showers; and just generally not seeming like herself. Minnie is fighting to hold on to her sense of identity, even her sense of humanity—she’s being called by the water in ways even she doesn’t understand, and she’s starting to see physical symptoms along with the mental ones...or are they side effects of the drugs?
Pammy, meanwhile, is a high-flying paleontologist (author of "Who’s Your Momma: The Search for the True Cetacean Ancestor" and the forthcoming "A Nice Place to Visit but I Wouldn’t Want to Swim There: Who Came Out of the Sea and Who Went Back"), researching the ancestry of marine mammals: how, why, and when formerly land-living mammalian creatures began to return to the sea and evolve into modern-day whales and dolphins. She’s overextended, super-busy, and consciously distancing herself from her family.
But when Minnie has an accident in the shower and is admitted to the hospital, Pammy comes home, and both she and her mother—in very different ways—are forced to confront the fact that they’re losing Minnie, that they’re never going to get the “old Minnie” back...and neither of them is really sure what this means. Where the mother is trying to hold on to Minnie ever more tightly, going as far as looking into a surveillance system for the home, Pammy starts to become convinced that perhaps, for Minnie’s own good, they need to let her go; whether that means a loss or an evolution is the play’s bigger question.
One tricky thing with a solo play can be establishing characters and character relationships without a lot of heavy-handed exposition. Buckley and Chivu handle this well, especially in creating a contrast between the overflowing talkativeness of both Pammy and Mom (though Mom’s chattiness is fidgety and almost compulsive while Pammy is all brusque efficiency and quick thinking, at least until she arrives home) and Minnie’s pained near silence. The character transformations are sharp and crisp, especially between Minnie and Pammy, where you can see that there are some underlying similarities in personality, and a genuine emotional bond, but the differences in affect are very striking.
Also very striking are Findlay’s set and, especially, video projections. The set evokes an old-school museum display—a cabinet of curiosities—wooden pigeonholes filled with the objects that will become crucial to the play, from a giant ball of red wool (Mom’s knitting) to Pammy’s mystery fossil skull to toy/miniature representations of other set elements (Pammy’s car, the family home and refrigerator). The plays with scale—Pammy taking the ingredients for a full-size cocktail from a tiny refrigerator—add an element of whimsy as well. But it’s the projections that are most distinctive—fully immersive, in fact, when they take us underwater. The video also has an incredibly high and well-thought-out level of specificity; at moments, projections fill and illuminate the entire space, while at others they’re highly targeted, landing on a particular spot or set element to create very precise effects.
But even though all the pieces, from performance to projection, are well-executed, Minnie remains a mystery at the heart of the play. We never see her before her illness, obviously, but even in the midst of this transformation and/or loss, she remains opaque, both as she is now and as she was—what do Pammy and Mom want her to return to? Beautiful underwater imagery evokes her dilemma, but those images are as close as we get to knowing whether she’s escaping from an old life or genuinely to a better one. Even when we see her writing letters—to her mother, to Pammy, to the world—there’s something generic about them. Her transformation seems at times too literally physical to be a metaphor, and at others too whimsical to be anything but. I think if I understood the character a little better, I’d embrace that ambiguity—but instead, there’s something a little frustrating about it.