Theatre Review: ‘Carapace’ at Alliance Theatre

CarapaceBy Manning Harris

You probably know that a carapace is the shell, case, or shield that covers the back of a tortoise and protects it; a further definition is a “protective, decorative, or disguising shell.”

The winner of Alliance Theatre’s Kendeda National Graduate Playwriting Competition is David Mitchell Robinson’s “Carapace,” which is having its world premiere engagement at the Alliance’s Hertz Stage, running through March 16 .  That’s not a very long run; therefore, you must hurry to get tickets because this play is close to miraculous in every conceivable way.

“Cunning, baffling, powerful”:  Those are words that all 12-step recovery people know describe the disease of alcoholism.  The central figure here is Jeff (David de Vries), a charming, articulate Minneapolis TV sportscaster who has this disease, knows it and denies it at the same time (“I’m just having ONE beer,” he says to his friend Ted (smoothly played by Mark Kincaid).  Right.

Jeff has a 23-year-old daughter named Margo (Bethany Anne Lind) with whom he is currently not on speaking terms.  Margo has been a stutterer most of her life, and some of the most touching scenes are flashbacks to occasions when Jeff, painstakingly and lovingly, tries to help and encourage her.  When Margo is a teenager, they have a good relationship, but always there is the shadow of Jeff’s drinking which cruelly sabotages what could have been a healing, symbiotic father-daughter relationship.

On her 23rd birthday Jeff is determined to visit Margo, give her a present, and attempt a reconciliation.  This task is made more difficult by Jeff’s ignorance of exactly where she lives, the freezing weather, and a botched effort to fetch an appropriate gift (a memorable scene with a zealous young pet shop salesman, played beautifully by Paul Hester).  “Carapace” has no wasted scenes or miscast characters:  It runs a riveting 90 minutes.

Joe Knezevich has a brilliant turn as Jeff’s ex-wife’s brother, who neither likes nor trusts Jeff.  Tony Larkin is superb as Brian, Margo’s boyfriend; we meet him near the end of the evening, but it’s worth the wait.  Mr. de Vries is onstage virtually the entire play, and his is a tour de force performance, centering and grounding the entire play.  Ms. Lind is a wonder, more than fulfilling the promise she showed in Horizon Theatre’s “Night Blooms,” among other plays.

As for the 29-year-old playwright, Mr. Robinson, I shall dare to quote Emerson’s famous line to the just-published Walt Whitman:  “I greet you at the beginning of a great career.”  I’m not Emerson, but Mr. Robinson’s unobtrusive construction, his gift for dialogue, and his great, empathetic heart would seem to indicate an unlimited career.  He has created a cautionary story of the folly of willfulness that has the earmarks of true tragedy.  As Jeff careens toward a solution of his and his daughter’s problems, the effect becomes heartbreaking and overpowering.  But Jeff doesn’t understand that only by admitting your powerlessness over this disease do you, ironically, become empowered.

The great American actress Judith Ivey is the director.  I had the good fortune to speak with two or three actors after the show, and they all spoke admiringly—almost adoringly—of her incredible facility of working and communicating with actors.  I think they’re right.

This short, powerful play is an almost perfect work of art.  There—I’ve said it; if you care about fine theatre, go see it.

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