Trapped Inward

Photo credit: James M Wilson
Written by Lori Fischer
Directed by Martha Banta
Presented by Theatre East at Urban Stages, NYC
September 23 - October 8, 2017

How many places have you gone in the past 10 days? Now what about in the past ten years? The matriarch at the center of Lori Fischer's world-premiere play Petie hasn't ventured beyond her Tennessee yard in the decade since her young son's death, an event that continues to bind the remaining family members' lives as surely as the property line bounds hers. Presented by Theatre East, a company that concentrates on new plays with socially relevant themes, Petie asks whether the family can become more than a prison and a site of fracture for these characters.   

The eponymous Petie (Grayson Taylor) -- pronounced Petey but with a visual echo of petit -- takes his affectionate appellation from his father, Pete (co-founder and Artistic Director of Theatre East Judson Jones), a.ka. Daddy, whose instability is directly involved in the child's death. Petie, who appears in flashbacks effectively indicated through Zach Murphy's lighting design, wants to be a preacher when he grows up, giving his shoes to a schoolmate without any, for example, but seems to remain open-minded in his Christianity, exchanging a drawing of Jesus for one of Ganseh from a Hindu classmate and taking an interest in her culture (being a child, particularly in its desserts). The same religiosity that seems innocent and promising in the boy, however, feeds into his father's severe mental health issues, which in turn feed into the son's ultimate, perhaps sacrificially-coded, demise. Petie's loss leaves his sister Jesse (Arielle Goldman) searching both for clarifying closure and for an outlet for her grief, and she channels those energies not only into her low-wage job and protecting her best friend, KM (Emily Verla), but also into self-harm. Meanwhile, Petie and Jesse's mother, house coat-clad Bonnie (the playwright, Lori Fischer), no longer leaves her home and is left to experience the outside world through radio sermons, the glossy magazines that Jesse brings home to her, and attempts at making human connections with 411 operators and employees of home-shopping companies. However, as the anniversary of Petie's death approaches, Bonnie is taking the advice of her radio pastor to try one new thing each week, and even though that thing may be as small as trying a new strain of pear, she feels it having the larger effect of, as she puts it, setting something loose inside of her. Jesse, in contrast, remains mired in the past: to stay with the play's food motif, she doesn't understand why Bonnie would ask for dill-pickle potato chips when they have always eaten Fritos.

Petie deals in questions both of repetition and change. Petie's angelic presentation is perhaps complicated by his father's statement that he sees Petie as a small version of himself. How true might that have become had not tragedy intervened? Given the tonal difference between two repetitions of the moment when Daddy leaves the house with Petie for the last time, there is the sense that at least some of how events are presented is filtered through Bonnie's mind, though how much is an open question: while some subjectivity of perspective is introduced, there doesn't seem to be any push to radically question the narrative. KM provides a repetition-with-a-difference of Bonnie and her husband's relationship in her relationship with Rick (Zachary Clark), in which the cause may be different but the domestic violence and issues around forgiveness are the same (though the appropriateness of loyalty and second and third chances are much less clear-cut and more fraught in Bonnie's case). Jesse herself more closely replicates the father she now despises than she wishes to admit. Even KM's reported cycling through boyfriends can be seen as a confining habitual re-enactment of the past that echoes the more tragic pasts of Bonnie and Jesse. Significantly, though, these echoes do not necessarily entail predetermined outcomes. As the play points out in a memory of Petie, lambs may fight against their own rescue, but that does not mean that they can't be rescued. The possibility remains that Jesse and Bonnie can unshackle themselves from the past and their roles in and guilt over Petie's death, escape the family/home as trap, and make their way, for example, to Graceland, a place whose name has obvious symbolic resonance and which Bonnie has only ever seen in the form of commemorative plates.

The production excels at creating atmosphere, expertly drawing the audience not only into its blue-collar Southern setting but also into its confining domestic space. We hear about locations other than Bonnie's home -- the Buy Low, where Jesse and KM work, the steakhouse, where KM and Rick drink -- but we, connected to Bonnie's perspective, experience only one gray-and-beige-dominated room and a piece of fenced-in yard. And when Daddy is not appearing in the flashbacks, his haunting of the present day is cleverly made physical. While many plays that tell the kind of story that Fischer's play does progressively darken an initially light tone, Petie successfully interweaves its funny and dramatic strands throughout. Bonnie's phone calls, for instance, play simultaneously as humorous and painfully revealing. The surface innocence of Jesse or her father playfully chasing Petie while telling him "I'm going to get you" takes on dark undertones, as does, more directly, the amusing banter between Jesse and KM. 

All of these effects are underpinned by a fantastic cast. Zachary Clark's Rick and Judson Jones' Daddy mirror one another as men who use their charm and protestations of love to just barely conceal wells of anger and potential violence. Arielle Goldman subtly but clearly differentiates between Jesse's present and younger selves, and brings potent depth to Jesse's personal struggles and complex, conflicted relationships with her mother and KM Goldman and Emily Verla compellingly embody that later relationship, so that when KM says that if the two friends were gay or one were a man, they would be married, we believe it without question. Verla keeps our sympathy for KM even when she is making terrible decisions, and Grayson Taylor, one of the best child actors that your reviewers have seen on a New York stage, more than holds his own amongst this roster of damaged characters as an open, affectionate, and enthusiastic Petie. Bonnie is the axis around which the whole play turns, and Lori Fischer furnishes an intense, heartfelt, heartbreaking performance, encapsulated in a moment in which she silently slides from rage, to realization, to regret, to weary devastation when Bonnie destroys something irreplaceable. 

Judson Jones and Christa Kimlicko Jones, the co-founders of Theatre East originally hail from Texas, and, in response to Hurricane Irma, donations for the Houston Food Bank will be accepted after all performances of Petie -- just one more reason to see this gripping, impactful new production. - Leah Richards & John Ziegler