What good is talk therapy if the patient won’t talk? Ten-year-old Cindy has gone mute, and her desperate mother and stepfather have brought her to self-assured therapist Vera to get to the bottom of the mystery. Child’s Play by Kevin D. Ferguson, now in its New York City premiere from the Rising Sun Performance Company (and not to be confused with the classic murderer-doll B movie of the same name), is indeed a mystery story, cleverly crafted to keep us glued to scene after short scene.
The solution to the mystery isn’t much of a surprise. In fact, I was a little disappointed that it didn’t turn out to be something less (sadly) commonplace. But in this psychological what-done-it, the psychology is smartly – I’m tempted to say, expertly – conceived and revealed.
The framing device of Vera giving a TED Talk about the case is a bit far-fetched. And some of the parents’ dialogue doesn’t ring true within the by-and-large naturalistic script – occasionally archaic or overly writerly (“Good lord!,” “taut as a wire”). But much more important, Crystal Edn as Vera and Raiane Cantisano as Cindy compellingly embody the two focal characters. Also, to dramatize what’s behind Cindy’s silence, playwright Ferguson fashions an innovative central conceit that keeps the action diverting under Brock Harris Hill’s flowing direction.
Cindy stays mum week after week, so Vera gets her to use toy figures to open up indirectly. The mental action of Cindy’s playing explodes into live-action imaginative characters representing the real figures in her troubled life. With exaggerated comic-book energy, an oblivious King and Queen (Ronald Kitts and Ashley Herndon) try with decreasing success to browbeat a Princess (Christian Victoria Allen) into subservience, which involves accepting or ignoring the presence of a looming threat. Only a Ninja Girl, played with furious focus by Katie Lynn Esswein, fights back. But can Cindy’s ninja essence emerge in real life?
Such a blatantly theatrical device needs to be handled with much creative care, or it can come off as obvious, cloying, or both. Hill and his cast make it engaging and effective. The fairy-tale folks’ tight, bright expressiveness makes Cindy’s silence all the more touching.
But Cantisano’s mute performance is a thing of beauty in itself. People often remark on great screen actors’ ability to express tiny gradations of thought and emotion
through subtle changes in facial expression, eye movements, a slight turn of the head. It’s a different skill to silently convey a person’s fully imagined soul on stage, and Cantisano does it brilliantly. We instantly sympathize with Cindy, even feel we understand her, long before we find out what traumatized her. In one of the most captivating scenes, Vera asks Cindy to draw her hopes, then her fears. Not only does Cindy say nothing, we can’t even see what she’s drawing on Vera’s pad. Yet the elastic interplay between therapist and patient jumps off the stage, feeling as real as reality gets.
Small scenes and moments outside the therapy sessions flesh out this portrait of family dysfunction. Cindy gasps in bed in the throes of a nightmare. Her in-denial mother (Mercedes Vasquez) abruptly closes off conversations with Vera, and with her meek husband (Michael Pichardo) too. Both mother and stepfather experience bits of well-deserved character growth late in the action, and Vera’s relationship with an amorous colleague (Andrew Gonzales in a charming turn) evolves too. It’s Cindy’s breakthrough we’re really waiting for, though, and the tension builds effectively towards it.
That the payoff doesn’t come as a shock is more a reflection of the prevalence, the banality, of real-life evil than of any failure of dramatic imagination. Child’s Play isn’t perfect, but it’s a strong piece of theater on a number of levels. It runs through April 23 at the Kraine Theatre. For information and tickets visit the Rising Sun website.