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Vignettes of Womanhood: ‘What Doesn’t Kill Me…’ proves challenges through comedy

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Wilmington’s newest theatre company, Outrageous Pelican Productions (OPP), opened their inaugural show at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle St. this weekend. Largely the brainchild of Nicole Farmer and Susan M. Steadman, OPP states one of their goals as “a celebration of works by women.” To that end, they are offering “What Doesn’t Kill Me…” a collection labeled as three one-acts written by Steadman and directed by Farmer. Each addresses themes of identity in adult womanhood.

MOVING DAY: Elaine Nalee plays Nola in “Moving Day,” one of three one-acts playing at Cape Fear Playhouse. Courtesy photo

MOVING DAY: Elaine Nalee plays Nola in “Moving Day,” one of three one-acts playing at Cape Fear Playhouse. Courtesy photo

Though labeled one-acts, these are more so vignettes in the sense they don’t really resolve a conflict. It’s more of a kaleidoscopic look at the struggles of motherhood and adult life. Taken as a whole, the work captures the spirit of clowning. What is being joked about is so serious and heavy that it must be approached with humor to keep from crying.

Steadman does a wonderful job of finding the funny and the ridiculous in the upsetting, by taking a gauged-lens look at specific aspects of the human experience that are often ignored, glossed-over or romanticized. Perhaps the reason the pieces don’t truly resolve is that the human experience doesn’t ever truly resolve. Instead of tying it up in a neat package, Steadman focuses the lens on the protagonists and their agenda.

The first offering, “Filling Spaces,” follows Rhonda (Carla Stanley), a part-time creative writing teacher with an insensitive, emotionally abusive husband, Charlie (Kazu Takeda). Using a series of gong sounds to note the transition of moments within the script, we follow Rhonda through an embarrassing party where Charlie humiliates her multiple times. There are irritating misunderstandings with friends, pointless therapy sessions and nightmare sequences. Stanley is moving as a kind-hearted but isolated and undernourished adult who isn’t sure how her life descended into this. It is not hard to see a bit of ourselves in her struggle to find her voice. Though she resolves this need on a metaphorical level, Steadman does not send her roaring into the universe, wrecking havoc as would be a standard dramatic technique. How does one resolve issues of emotional neglect and violence in less than an hour? Without using belittling platitudes, it is incredibly difficult to fathom. Takeda’s portrayal of the husband who always has to shut down any joy or desires she has, while somehow still playing the victim, is fascinating. But the character is written to be one-dimensional, which doesn’t give him much opportunity to be more fully human and thereby explore the full complications of a relationship like this. 

“Tuesdays We Go To Playgroup” utilizes the creative conceit of having adults play 4-year-old toddlers by moving about on their knees with pads. As the four actresses act out the stereotypes of frustrated early motherhood, the children mirror them across the stage. When the balance of power shifts to one woman, her child also rises in the power struggle among the other children. The technique is well-executed.

The third offering, “Moving Day,” is almost a one-woman show. Elaine Nalee stars as Nola, an older woman in the process of moving out of her house. She hires two movers, played by Bryce Flint-Somerville and Joe Smith. They serve as foils to her deluded ideas of organization and taking control of her life. While she lectures the audience, they move on- and offstage, carting boxes and bags. Meanwhile, she inform us she is good at managing people, all the while working out to Jane Fonda and searching for a missing kitty cat. 

As a study on denial, it is interesting because clearly everything she fancies herself to be—organized, good at managing people, smart, productive, generous—gets juxtaposed with her actions and interactions with the movers. Nalee is a good performer and truly communicates great subtleties in this fairly shallow woman. Flint-Somerville has a gift for physical comedy that is infectious, and Wilmington audiences only can hope to see much more of him soon. When he and Smith uncover the elephant in the room, their shock and discomfort is palpable. In spite of having the audience’s undivided attention for nearly 20 minutes, there is no actual story or explanation offered. We see the moment after the action, and we see her cleaning up from it, but the story is only hinted at, not revealed. Perhaps leaving the audience wanting more is the sign of artistic success.

Visually, Farmer, Steadman and their cohorts have assembled a really versatile, working set that moves through all three pieces seamlessly. The costumes are particularly detailed with one of the mommy-daughter pairs in matching outfits, and Nalee is in an ensemble that goes from work-wear to a ball gown, with complete believability.

Though there are three distinct but related pieces, there is only one 15-minute intermission that comes just before the third piece. Admittedly, watching the extensive set-redressing for act two is entertaining, but two 10-minute intermissions between the pieces might be a better choice.

It is really wonderful to welcome another production company to the scene, especially one with a mission to uplift women artists. Part of what makes this particular show interesting is that it looks at the daily application of second-wave feminism, as it butts its head against the reality of expectations that women still cope with—willingly or not.

All the theory in the world crumbles at dirty diapers, bills to be paid and the never ending need we have to still be attractive to our mate. The conflict philosophy and biological necessitates plays out slowly and inexorably. Steadman has captured that really well. If this first production is anything to judge what is to come from OPP, it definitely will be different, challenging and interesting.


What Doesn’t Kill Me

Cape Fear Playhouse, 613 Castle St.
Thurs. – Sun., 20-23, 8 p.m.;
Sun. matinee: 3 p.m.
Tickets: $10-$18 • (910) 367-5237

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