Several shows in Wilmington suffered as a result of Florence: Thalian Association’s “Pippin” lost a week of performances; Pineapple-Shaped Lamps’ “Cannibal” opened late; Panache rescheduled “Rocky Horror” to February. UNCW Theatre Department also had to postpone opening their new season with Marsha Norman’s “Getting Out,” directed by Anne Berkeley. But the curtain lifted last week to deliver something emotionally powerful and artistically engaging.
Norman is perhaps best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning drama, “Night Mother.” “Getting Out” was her big break that launched her career. Clearly, she has not yet honed razor-sharp dialogue. Though there is far more exposition in this script than her later work would demonstrate, it does call for a tremendous amount of subtlety and unspoken power shifts. Actually, one could argue the entire script revolves around a battle for power waged by one person against the world.
Arlie (Penelope Sangiorgi) is an absolutely awful, terrifying, sadistic girl bully. The happiest and funniest moment of her childhood involves the wholesale slaughter of her next-door neighbor’s collection of frogs, merely for the joy of watching it crush a child. Arlene (Erin Sullivan) is the adult version of Arlie, who was recently released from prison for a killing that involved a gas-station attendant and a cab driver. We watch Arlene move into an apartment back in her hometown. Sullivan gives us a woman who is just as trapped as she always has been but has given up on the fight. That is Sullivan’s body language: clenched fists, back to a wall, arms straight. She might be quieter, but she’s trying to turn her strength to something else: fighting for her instead of against everyone else. It is a small distinction, but to Arlene it is the most important in her life.
What Norman, Berkeley, Sangiorgi and Sullivan are showing us is the complexity of what has brought Arlene to this point. By all rubrics, she is the victim and we should be rooting for her. We should want her to succeed and overcome the hand that life has dealt her—poverty, abuse, rape—but she is so mean and hardened by it, the idea of trying to rescue her is almost repellent.
Sullivan’s sullen, withdrawn Arlene, who is trying to change her life, is very frustrating for those around her. They want to paint a picture on her of her past and she won’t let them, but she isn’t really offering an alternative. If anything, she looks like she is in shock … all the time. After close to a decade of incarceration, all of this must be shocking. Just the idea of using a phone or going grocery shopping seems overwhelming and Sullivan convinces us of her state of mental and emotional overload.
Sangiorgi has got the “aggressive white trash ready to fight” physicality down cold. Everything about her radiates “stay away.” Indeed, other girls do. It is only men who are skilled at exploitation and identify her as a victim to be used: her pimp, Carl (Kelton Mills); Bennie the prison guard (Tommy Goodwin); and her father whose presence overshadowed so much of her life, he can’t even be depicted on stage. With both Mills and Goodwin, we get a sense she already is primed and shaped for their desires, despite what she wants. In both cases, it is all about them. Neither make an effort to appeal to her so she follows their plans; they are both quite certain their offer is the only logical one.
For all the creepiness of the men around Arlie, the women wrap themselves up like a blanket and protect themselves from what they can see will spill over from her. Her mother (Lara Askew), for example, is willfully blind to what occurred and continues to do so in Arlene’s life. From the moment she arrives on stage, Askew is in motion and almost constantly talking. The in-put of information is not something she is interested in. She wants to shape and shore up the world she lives in; things should be the way she says they are. Instead when confronted with any of her daughter’s reaching out for her, she responds by shutting down, shutting out and leaving in anger. She doesn’t take the time to get to know the person who has returned from eight years in prison; that would require making eye contact.
Except for her new neighbor upstairs, Ruby (Safi-Veliora Omar). Ruby is confident, has a job, knows the score, and isn’t scared of Arlene or the assortment of people who swarm about her. What is surprising is the naturalness with which she offers kindness to someone who clearly has never experienced it. In a show filled with unlikable people, Omar is tasked with portraying the one likable character on stage and not veering into sappiness. Instead, she gives us someone who has fought for and earned her self-respect and isn’t handing that over to anyone—but has figured out how protect herself while still holding out a hand to others. It is complex in real life. But just imagine trying to create that on stage in under an hour.
As mentioned, UNCW weathered losing weeks of the semester from the storm, and for a show with as much intensity and subtlety as Norman’s script, I am sure Dr. Berkeley would have preferred having that time with her cast. Regardless, they turned out a show that elicited the response intended: horror. Sheer unfolding horror. The night I attended had an additional issue to contend with: Ms. Sangiorgi, playing Arlie, had lost her voice. When the audience arrived signs were posted at the entrance announcing Cassie Frazier would voice her part for the evening. Indeed, clad in all black and holding a script she sat in shadows on the stage and read the part as Ms. Sangiorgi physically preformed it. Just unpack that for a moment because there are several aspects to consider, most notably the artistic merit and educational value of it.
Let’s start with education. The mission of university theatre is varied. However, it does include preparing students to enter the world of professional theatre. To that end, the maxim “the show must go on” is more than cliché. Certainly, Ms. Frazier’s stepping in at the last moment was nothing sort of heroic and made it possible for the show to go until Ms. Sangiorgi’s voice returns. In theory the students should also learn how to produce a product of monetary value for their audience. Is the audience that goes to the show of Ms. Frazier sitting on stage reading the script the same show of the same monetary value as the audience who will see Ms. Sangiorgi with her voice returned next week? It is a legitimate question to ponder.
Artistically, however, the choice worked. If no one had told me this was an emergency maneuver, I could have understood it as a directorial choice: The idea of Arlie being so out of control of her life that actions of her body and voice are located in two different spheres is plausible. Frazier and Sangiorgi paired really well for this particular show and truly made a fascinating performance. I would almost ask if there is a real motive for uncoupling them once Ms. Sangiorgi’s voice returns…
“Getting Out” remains timely and powerful. Like much of Marsha Norman’s writing, it sticks with the audience for days if not years after exiting the theater. Dr. Berkeley and her young cast have brought it to life and created a memorable and emotionally charged night of theatre that is worth seeing and discussing.