Can we ever put our pasts behind us? Every day another politician or celebrity goes down in flames when old transgressions resurface. But what about us regular folk? The past certainly raises plenty of trouble in paradise in Charlie’s Waiting, a probing new comedy-drama by Mêlisa Annis from woman-focused Parity Productions, now at Theaterlab.
A secret from the past threatening a couple’s future happiness on the eve of their wedding? It’s the kind of story that could have happened in any era. Except that our protagonists are two women. Visibly pregnant Louise (Xanthe Elbrick) is fretting over last-minute wedding preparations at home in the English countryside, in the house her rich father built for her. It incorporates – forebodingly? – stones from the distant past, from Hadrian’s Wall in fact. Her fianceé Kelly (Stephanie Heitman) is out playing with the goats she’s fallen in love with at the farmer’s next door, frustratingly not answering her phone as Louise receives a surprise visitor.
The first half of this 70-minute one-act is a taut, very funny, and brilliantly played dance of wits and emotions. Annie (Amy Scanlon), Kelly’s old boarding school roommate, has arrived not for the wedding but for a mysterious reason we eventually learn in the scene’s twist finale. Along the way she discomfits Louise more and more by revealing tiny tidbits of information about Kelly’s past life. Even a relatively trivial detail, like Kelly’s having been known by a different form of her name, gnaws at Louise’s sense of security. Elbrick gives us an oh-so-sure-of-herself Louise who is also wound tight as a tambourine. The performance, guided by Annis’s script and Ludovica Villar-Houser’s sparkling staging, delivers an icily gradual unravel.
In parallel, Annie’s initial awkwardness slowly solidifies into dominance. Through Scanlon’s sparkling performance, Annie comes to control the very atmosphere with a mere look. (I couldn’t help imagining, given the English setting, an alternative-universe Keeping Up Appearances episode where perpetually terrified Elizabeth turns the tables on force-of-nature social climber Hyacinth.)
The second half is more drama than comedy, and less focused, though realistically imagined and well played. Louise at last faces Kelly, and the cracks as well as the seams in their relationship appear. Earlier, when Louise insisted to Annie that she and Kelly were “rock solid,” it smacked of desperation. Sure enough Kelly later says coolly, “I can’t be by your side all the time, I can’t do it.”
Heitman’s nicely modulated performance makes us want to know Kelly better. She isn’t as fully developed as Louise, whose point of view we’ve been immersed in for some time. And we run out of time in this one-act. Wisely, though, Annis leave the future uncertain. Has Annie’s visit built a rock-solid barrier between the lovers, or will love conquer? The end of the play is somehow both neat and open-ended, predictable yet leaving us with questions.
They’re the kind of questions every couple must ask themselves. Annis artfully shows us in Charlie’s Waiting that changing gender traditions don’t negate the fundamental mysteries and uncertainties of human relationships. It’s at Theaterlab until April 20.