Intriguing, suspenseful, beautifully written and brilliantly acted, the world premiere production of Sheila is the kind of painfully intimate show one expects to be the product of one writer’s focused personal vision. Instead, the play is “devised by” The Associates, in collaboration with Gina DeMay, an actor who, mysteriously, doesn’t get a bio on the program. Neither does the actor playing a third, nonspeaking role in the ostensible two-hander. Another mystery.
But mystery drenches the play itself. Gloria (Lauren LaRocca) putters about uncomfortably in a sparsely furnished house in a nearly wordless opening scene showing that in one way or another, whether literally or mentally, she’s not at home here. Then, nearly overcome by anxiety, she belatedly answers the door after several knocks to admit Mary (Peregrine Teng Heard). Well beyond their screechingly awkward greetings and long into their hesitant conversation, we still don’t know their relationship – the first of several mysteries that clear up only after agonizing delays.
Though now and then we may get impatient as the two young women obfuscate and delay, the fine writing and the high-strung, sharply tuned performances keep us leaning in. And the tale that’s slowly revealed is original and fascinating, borne on a sharpening conflict that raises universal, unanswerable questions even as it limns Gloria and Mary. Do we sacrifice other values to pursue personal happiness? Or do we accept responsibility and learn to find happiness where we can in the circumstances that arise? Most of us, if we’re totally honest, have to admit we carry some of each tendency. And how do love and friendship fit in? What about one’s responsibilities to one’s children? One’s parents?
Under Jamal Abdunnasir’s icily precise direction, the granular details of the performances sustain a slow but almost continuous momentum. There’s a perfectly good kitchen table, but the women sit on the floor when they start to really open up. Mary presses a squirming Gloria to explain how she pays her rent. After Mary leaves, Gloria angrily dumps the pitcher of iced tea from which her friend had accepted a drink. At one crazed moment, the ghostly figure of their shared childhood fantasy scrambles in vain to pick up a deluge of pearls dropping from her necklace. Moment after moment, the tension grows as we learn more and more – and realize how much we still don’t know.
The Associates began creating Sheila in 2015. But it also offers a lens on the #MeToo movement, which is causing us to look with fresh eyes on so many things. Victimization can reverberate through the years, even throughout one’s life. Yet the play acknowledges the complexity of relationships, and of individuals. Each of these women reveals a number of facets as the single 75-minute act unfolds. And while a few times I found myself wishing they’d hurry up and get on with it, before long their story had grabbed me by the nervous system, and didn’t let go until the lights came up.
Sheila runs only through Jan. 27, so purchase tickets online and see the world premiere of this powerful, original work while you can.