It’s got a ripped-from-the-headlines storyline, but Laura Marks’s Bethany is anything but realistic, a fact that becomes increasingly clear as the play slides from something reasonably naturalistic into a fever-dream nightmare. It’s a work that leans heavily on stock types and an exceedingly familiar structure, only to violently upend expectations in the end. As a series of symbols about our economic times, Bethany is a reasonably harrowing fable, but its abrupt tonal shift really enlivens the metaphor.
ACT Theatre’s production has an embarrassment of riches in the acting department, led by Emily Chisholm’s performance as Crystal, a newly homeless car saleswoman who needs to convince Child Protective Services (CPS) she has a suitable residence so she can get her daughter, Bethany, back. Between this and last year’s Sugar Daddies, Chisholm is establishing a strong reputation as an actor who can carefully deconstruct a crumbling emotional façade. In gestures both small and large, she’s remarkably convincing as a woman trying mightily but failing to keep it together.
Crystal breaks into a vacant house in a neighborhood pockmarked with foreclosures, with plans to make it look like her own place, but she’s not the first one to take advantage of the back door’s flimsy lock. Gary (Darragh Kennan), a haggard conspiracy theorist, has already taken up residence. Crystal is initially terrified, then repulsed by his homelessness, then accepting of the fact that despite superficial differences, their status is identical. The two develop a wary bond, working together to fool CPS agent Toni (Cynthia Jones) that this is a real, stable home environment.
Meanwhile at her job at a soon-to-be-shuttered Saturn dealership, Crystal is desperate for a commission on a sale to Charlie (a perfectly smarmy Richard Ziman), more of a cipher for predatory American forces — economic and otherwise — than a real character. Charlie’s motivational-speaker routines ring as hollow as his feigned interest in an expensive car, but Crystal entertains his advances in hopes of a payday.
Director John Langs doesn’t allow for much, if any, flab around the edges of this tight sub-90 minute play, developing a sense that events are hurtling toward their inevitable conclusion. Carey Wong’s sparse but evocative scenic design suspends a slab of linoleum over an unseen abyss, and there’s so much empty space, one worries that a stumble could send an actor tipping over the brink. For these characters, there’s little doubt that’s where they’re headed.
Bethany runs through May 4 at ACT Theatre. Tickets are available for purchase online.Powered by Sidelines