Fractured Fairy Tale

Even the most hardened of humbuggers among us has trouble grumbling at full-Grinch when confronted each holiday TV season with the holy trinity of Christmas fables. By these, I mean It's a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and Scrooge as well as their dramatic permutations and progeny. (No way am I including the cloyingly sappy White Christmas--either its original Holiday Inn incarnation or its remake.)

Who can resist getting all sentimental by a broken George Bailey (Jimmy Stewart), an Everyman verging on suicide, convinced that he is a failure? That is, until Clarence, his wingless guardian angel, rewinds George's life without him in it. Only then can George see the difference he has made in the lives of those he's touched. And who can resist little Natalie Wood's performance in Miracle on 34th Street as she plays the child of a divorcee, socialized not to believe the Santa Claus myth? Enter Kris Kringle (played charmingly by Edmund Gwenn), hired by Mom as Macy's Christmas Santa, who makes it his mission to prove to the doubting child not only that there is a Santa Claus, but also that he is it. Then, of course, there is Scrooge, based on the Dickens fable A Christmas Carol. Again, who among us is strong enough to ward off the high schmaltz of this drama as Ebenezer, helped by a trio of ghosts, morphs into something resembling a human being?

Just why these fables are so irresistible has as much to do with their realistic narratives as it does with our psychic need to find meaning in the universe. Each shares the somewhat theological notion that there is some grand scheme to life--a cosmic plan that rights action when it gets too far off course, that makes sense out of what appears to be a meaningless existence, that reveals the reasons bad things happen to good people--reasons mere mortals are denied, unless given clarity from helpful supernaturals, such as angels, Santa, ghosts, whatever.

With no apparent help from otherworldly types, Rachel, the helter-skelter heroine of Craig Lucas' fractured fairy tale, Reckless, now playing at Kitchen Dog Theater, has bought into nearly every Christmas fantasy--chestnuts roasting on the open fire, eggnog, White Christmas, adoring children helping Mom and Dad decorate the tree. Rachel (Tina Parker) is an "everything happens for a reason" person; she values tradition, loves her two young boys, chats incessantly and declares to her husband, Tom (Max Hartman, also playing other roles), that she is "going to be terminally happy."

No playwright in his right mind is going to let a character get away with that kind of unbridled gush, and Lucas doesn't disappoint. Tom quickly provides the inciting incident to upset the balance in Rachel's chipper life. As he writhes with her every word and cringes under her touch, he guiltily announces, "I took a contract out on your life!"

"Life insurance?" Rachel asks naïvely.

No, he means a contract of the hit man variety, irrevocable and about to be executed within seconds, unless Rachel gets the hell out of the house--and her life.

"This is so mean," she tells him as she flees in her robe and Santa Claus slippers, not so much vanishing from her comfortable existence as being banished from it. We see her literally stripping herself of her identity, tossing her wedding ring, conjuring up a different name, a different past as she embarks on her bumpy, oftentimes absurd road to self-discovery.

This cloaking of identity is a big theme for playwright Lucas, a former Broadway chorus member-turned-writer who has penned nearly a dozen plays, screenplays and musicals. The most notable among these, Prelude to a Kiss, handles the issue of identity in a much more blatant fashion than Reckless: two souls swapping bodies and changing genders in an adult fairy tale that decides somewhat sentimentally that love is the reason to go on living.

In Reckless, written nearly a decade before Prelude, it seems that no character is who he appears to be: Whether it's Lloyd (played engagingly by Craig Parish), a physical therapist who offers Rachel shelter, or Pooty (Karen Parrish), his deaf, paraplegic wife, each hides some aspect of his or her identity, stalked by a past of accidental, negligent and reckless actions that they had limited ability to control. Each time Rachel tries to influence an action--whether it is becoming more competent on her job at the nonprofit "Hands Across the Sea" or winning a game show, Your Mother or Your Wife--nothing turns out as it otherwise would if the universe were a rational place to hang your soul.

"Things don't happen for a reason," Rachel seems to decide. "Things just happen."

But that conclusion isn't enough to content Rachel, as she goes searching for answers by visiting a series of wacky shrinks. From Freudians to rebirthers, they seem more focused on their own particular brand of therapy than Rachel's mental health. Each therapist is played with great comedic panache and intention by Rhonda Boutté. As she relives one of her character's own painful birth, Boutté offers up one of the play's most hilarious scenes.

Though Parker has able assists from Max Hartman (whose Vanna White in drag darkens this comedy just that much more) and Craig Parrish (whose lumberjack persona wilts under the despair of lost love), this is really Rachel's play. And Parker gives a magnificent performance, using every device in her acting arsenal--from physical comedy to gutsy emotion--to flesh out a character that might be one-dimensional in less able hands.

Director Christopher Carlos does an admirable job, keeping the audience off balance, allowing us to believe every so often that this splintered narrative may be more dream than reality. The play's truncated manner of handling of time and space--different scenes taking place in different towns, all of them named Springfield--gives the work a dreamy, interior quality. So when Rachel, on her bizarre travels, asks the question, "What state are we in?" the answer seems apparent: the state of her mind. But director Carlos is careful not to let this go too far, keeping the plot moving, coherent and real through the connective tissue of coincidence.

The surreal quality, however, seems enhanced by lighting designer Linda Blase, who breaks the small McKinney Avenue Contemporary stage into at least five separate acting spaces, washing each in just the right amount of illumination to keep our attention piqued. Of course, Carlos makes certain our interest never sags, keeping the temperature in the theater chilly--which only adds to our involvement in the snowy, wind-blown, perpetually Christmas setting.

Oddly, as the play veers toward its conclusion, author Lucas reverses his thematic course, choosing a more Capra-esque ending, something more fabled and feel-good than all that has preceded it. Lucas finally allows Rachel to get her life together and realize that all her zany travails--the fleeing, the child abandonment, the shooting, the poisonings, the deaths--have happened for a reason. So what if the playwright is copping out. God's in his heaven and all's right with the world. After all, it's Christmas.

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Mark Donald
Contact: Mark Donald