nytheatre.com review by Nita Congress
June 14, 2012
American Stare is a hard look at a number of conflicts we as a nation are engaged in now: the 99 percent versus the 1 percent. The community versus the corporation. The expedient versus the ethical. The play’s premise—and its conclusion—is not the comfortable, familiar one: that there is no easy answer. Rather, playwright Tony Glazer suggests that the answer lies in savage, swift, decisive action.
Which can be oddly comforting too: a clarion call to take a stand, to make a move, to strike a blow.
This is not in any way to imply that American Stare is an unremitting, bitter polemic. Far from it. This is a warm play, with hot passions underlying, filled with loving and lovable characters. The people who make up the world of American Stare are the marginalized denizens of a southern Florida trailer park—scruffy outcasts to be sure, but the by-products of the American dream: Work hard and you will succeed.
Our point of entry into the story is Jonatha Mooney, a budding adolescent on the cusp of the absolutism of childhood and the ambiguities of adulthood. This is nicely symbolized by her beginning each act of the play by making sidewalk chalk sketchings of infinity.
Jonatha believes in community, one for all and all for everyone. And her parents, Allison and Charles, their own relationship threatened by economic insecurity, instill in her, both wittingly and un-, a sense of honor, responsibility, and kinship. The complex characters of her extended family, the other denizens of the trailer park—Clark, a presumed child molester with a keen moral streak, and Margaret, a wise earth mother whose recent bereavement and impoverishment lead her to equivocating compromise that disgusts Jonatha—make for a rich and unexpected set of contrasts.
Catalyzing the action is the outsider, Robert, a slick smart corporate representative, peddling the snake oil of the easy way out to the vulnerable Margaret, whose husband’s death from cancer was likely directly caused by Robert’s company.
The play’s highlights for me were the showdown debates between the polar opposites of Jonatha and Robert. These abound with ringing, zinging statements: “Around here, all we have is community.” “There’s no real money in cures.” It’s an unfair match-up, but Robert admires Jonatha’s spunk and savvy, even while he deplores her naiveté. He jeers, “It takes a village to rape a pygmy.” But he has reckoned without her determination, which is as strong as his own.
The players—Becca Ballenger, Summer Crockett Moore, Trey Gibbons, Brad Holbrook, LeeAnne Hutchison, and Shane Patrick Kearns—breath life into complicated characters, never losing sight of their humanity. And New Jersey Rep and its technicians and artists have again mounted an intriguing and eloquent play, grounding it with a solid set design courtesy of Jessica Parks, naturalistic costumes by Patricia E. Doherty, and realistic light and sound from, respectively, Jill Nagle and John Emmett O’Brien.
Playwright Tony Glazer has perhaps taken on more issues than can be resolved in a single play, but his ambition and fearlessness are to be admired. If you are looking for escapism, this is not the evening’s entertainment for you. But if you are trying to set your heart and mind to the important—indeed, vital—task of grasping the disturbing polarities that increasingly define our American landscape, American Stare affords that opportunity in spades.