Monday, November 12, 2018

Theatre AUM: "Child's Play"

In Kevin D. Ferguson's powerful and provocative Child's Play at Theatre AUM, young Cindy Stillman [Piper Mann alternates with Sophia Kessler] has stopped talking. The reason is a mystery, but as in real life any drastic change of behavior is often the result of some traumatic event, Cindy is sent to therapist Vera Heigl [Amy May] to discover the cause and help her to "find her voice". Suspicions of abuse [a topic that is too often reported in the news] arise quickly; and as the perpetrators are likely to be authority figures or family members the victim trusts, Vera must secure Cindy's confidence in her in order to accomplish her goal. -- As a kind of TED Talk narrator of the drama, Vera too needs to find her own voice, as she is suffering from burn-out, and is helped along the way by her colleague Roger [Tony George], whose romantic inclinations she resists at first.

Director Neil David Seibel continues Theatre AUM's relationship with the Playwright's Lab at Hollins University in Virginia that incubates new plays via its MFA program and where award winning playwright Ferguson is the resident dramaturg.

Mr. Seibel guides his mostly veteran ensemble actors through the contrasting naturalistic and fantasy episodes of this two-act drama; and with an inventive student design team [set and props: Olivia Tippett, costumes: Kate Saylor, lighting: Emily Aveldanez, sound: Marcus Godbee, make-up: Olivia Crutchfield] keeps audiences engaged in Cindy's suspenseful journey.

Ms. May plays Vera as a compassionate therapist whose refrain "In this part of our time together, you can do almost anything" gently secures Cindy's trust, and Ms. Mann engages in "play therapy" -- drawings that audiences see as projections, and sandbox toys that come to life -- showing her nightmares that give progressive clues to the events that triggered her silence.

These dreams particularly shed light on Cindy and her family's dynamics: when a Dragon [Sam Penn] threatens and almost shatters the idyllic fairy-tale life of the Princess [Faith Roberts], the King [Ryan Gerrells], and the Queen [Olivia Crutchfield], and a Ninja Girl [Kate Saylor] attempts to rescue the Princess, we can't help but notice the correlation as Cindy is projecting her own family in her nightmares.

Her compassionate and loving stepfather Peter [Kodi Robertson in a sensitive and understated performance] and her perfection-driven mother Julia [Brittany Vallely] both want things to go back to normal, but their own relationship is fraught with divergent versions of the truth.

Fear, secrecy, and safety with the loved ones who ought to be trusted are gradually revealed to be the crux of Cindy's affliction that bring the play to its shattering climax. -- Mr. Seibel and his company address the subject of child abuse with a sensitivity and honesty that are to be commended. And Theatre AUM sheds light on a topic that encourages audiences to address uncomfortable matters that are unfortunately too much in evidence in our own community.