The Glory of Living by Pultizer Prize-nominated playwright Rebecca Gilman, aptly directed by Ashley Kelly Tata, is now at the Access Theater Black Box until August 18. This is a revival worth seeing for its solid performances by Hannah Sloat (Lisa), Hardy Pinnell (Clint), and the ensemble cast of eight who vividly portray a variety of characters. Gilman wrote the play in 1998, but it remains current in a time when the gap between the haves and the have-nots continues to widen and the hope for economic improvement for the lower classes narrows.
Gilman’s play is based on a true story of an impoverished young couple in the South who are bonded by a macabre ritual of theft, sexual violence and murder. For teenage Lisa, who runs away from her sordid life with her prostitute mother into the arms of sweet-talking ex-con Clint, it is a perverse coming of age story. In a sardonic twist, Gilman doesn’t show Lisa gaining understanding from her experiences. By the play’s end the protagonist is even more clueless and emotionally empty than when she first met Clint. Gilman unravels the couple’s raw, brutal story by degrees, allowing us to guess the whys of Lisa’s and Clint’s behavior. Much of it boils down to economic deprivation, lack of education and cultural vacuity.
Gilman outlines the couple’s relationship after their marriage and the birth of their twins, who Lisa’s mother is raising. We watch numbed as Clint mentors Lisa in the art of living the lowdown life. Using sadomasochistic subjugation and sexual abuse while professing his love for her, Clint takes Lisa on a journey through colorless towns symbolized by the inside of dreary motel rooms. The couple get their kicks and release their self-loathing by robbing hapless souls they chance upon to sustain themselves. It’s a “living” which allows them to stay at motels and get to the next day of “Now what?” The director and set designer Alexandra Regazzoni have made excellent use of the space, staging and sets to convey the changing sordid motel rooms and passage of time.
Bored with the sameness of their slimy, destitute life of TV watching, junk food eating and thievery, Clint sensationalizes their adventures. Gilman effectively shows the progression of Clint’s dark appetites through the dialogue and rapid scene changes to seedier motel rooms. Soon we are witnessing their latest “mountaintop experiences.” At Clint’s direction Lisa has enticed a mentally vacant teenage girl to their room with the promise of fun and excitement. During the conversation among Clint, Lisa and the handcuffed teen, we understand that the girl has been “taken” and Clint will exploit/rape her which Lisa may or may not watch. We learn that such events have occurred before. Lisa has helped Clint lure the women and sometimes participated in forced sex rituals.
In a pivotal scene when she is alone, Lisa calls the police. As an anonymous tipster, she tells them where to locate a few dead bodies. Shocked, we realize Clint bullied Lisa into taking victims to a secluded spot and shooting them after the sexual violence. Clint’s predation has been carefully thought out. He selects disaffected runaway teens “no one will miss.” When they are in his power, Clint uses them for cheesy thrills which Lisa can or cannot enjoy, but she must dispose of the refuse when he’s done. Since Lisa pulls the trigger, Clint will remain free from blame.
Hannah Sloat brilliantly shows Lisa’s downhill slide from independent, self-possessed and sassy 15-year-old to submissive, anesthetized go-to murderer wife. Hardy Pinnell balances Clint’s charm with underlying menace. Both create an authenticity in this couple’s relationship which helps us realize how their warped sensibilities desire to abuse and be abused. Gilman never provides clues why this occurs, only how it can in this cultural backdrop. It is a major flaw of Act I.
At the beginning of Act II the couple has been caught and imprisoned. Lisa is facing the death penalty, now old enough to be tried as an adult. She easily confesses the murders and doesn’t implicate Clint in them. She matter-of-factly states that if she didn’t kill, he would have killed her, but she doesn’t harbor resentment against him or willingly accuse him as the mastermind. In Lisa’s conversation with her public defender, Gilman reveals that Lisa doesn’t understand how Clint’s coercion, bullying and sexual abuse have made her into his puppet. She is like a naive child, clueless, passive, even smiling about what she has done and what will happen to her. Sloat is flawless in the final scene with her lawyer who attempts to reach out to her with a toy piano which she childishly plays.
Gilman reinforces the notion that women in the South and those in the lower class are the playthings of their husbands and their partners. She symbolizes this in the characterization of Lisa whose identity has been so warped by Clint that she has made herself and the women she killed victims in acts which recall gender genocide. Clint, Gilman’s redneck male “terminator,” is not worthy of the life given to him, but clever enough to know he’s alive and alive enough to exploit and subjugate all who come near. He is criminal through and through and we cannot grieve for his absent humanity; Hardy Pinnell’s charming hustler is terrifying and real.
Gilman’s play, like a “slice-of-life” docu-drama, shows the couple’s gruesome, base reality without preachy judgment. Her depiction is deadening and it drains our empathy for these characters, a major flaw in her storytelling which is never corrected in Act II. The ironic title further illustrates that Lisa, Clint and their victims do not even exist in the panorama of American culture nor does the culture care that they are not known. This question remains. Is Gilman’s portrayal of these people so lacking in humanity that the audience doesn’t care either? Shouldn’t we?
The Glory of Living directed by Ashley Kelly Tata is at the Access Black Box Theatre until August 18. With Hannah Sloat, Hardy Pinnell, Stacee Mandeville, Lindsey Liberatore, Richard Hutzler, Laura Heckel, Matthew Hansen, Amanda Gardner, Stephen James Anthony.