BWW Reviews: Pierce's SLOWGIRL Makes a Curious Piece at the Geffen
Place: the jungle of Costa Rica. Time: the present. The intense solitude. The intermittent sounds of parrots and other wild birds and iguanas scraping their nails against the metal roof of a tiny shack. One ex-lawyer Sterling (William Petersen) has made this isolated place his home for several years, calling it Los Angeles, maybe to remind him of his attachment to his ex-wife Karen who lived there. He has escaped into a private world and uses his time to forget or maybe repent any involvement he had in his imprisoned partner's embezzlement. Enter niece Becky (Rae Gray) from LA, whom Sterling has not seen for 9 years. She's also seeking temporary escape, accused of murdering a fellow teen at a drunken, drugged out party. It's awkward at first, as the two confused souls try to understand each other, and the surroundings somehow manage to provide a desperately needed respite, peace and comfort. Now onstage at the Geffen's Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, Greg Pierce's Slowgirl is an intensely engrossing 90-minute treatment of how 2 is definitely better than 1 in facing crises of any magnitude.
Sterling accepts Becky's visit, at the request of his sister, her mother, who wants Becky out of her hair for a week before she faces sentencing. She obviously depends on her brother's quiet manner and wisdom to help her daughter through her turmoil. He knows the law and how to make the juvenile feel more at ease. The conflict lies, however, in Becky's unwillingness to share the whole truth about what happened on the night in question...and Sterling's unwillingness to become too involved. He's like a monk. He retreats to a labyrinth that he built on top of the mountain for deep meditation, and invites Becky to come along. Becky cannot maintain silence. Like any blossoming teen, she's full of spunk and curiosity about her uncle's strange ways. Is he gay? Why does he keep to himself? Why hasn't he visited the family for so long? Her intrusion shakes him up to the point where he begins to question the effectiveness of his existence, and at the same time, like a good teacher, he manages to help change her rude yet innocent, inexperienced patterns of thinking and living. They are good for each other. There's also something to be said about Pierce's keen eye to teen behavior. Becky's irritating, nonstop chatter and inquisitive questioning not only seem a perfect fit to the wild surroundings, but more urgently offer much quirky humor.
Petersen is a slow, methodical actor, a wonderful listener, who gives Sterling a complex edge, a person that is not easy to figure out. Gray uses every ounce of angst, fear and insecurity to bring Becky to full, vibrant life. The chemistry between them is finely honed, under Randall Arney's cautious and caring direction. Takeshi Kata's open set with no walls and arranged in the three-quarter not only puts us in the jungle mood but forces us to be judge and jury of both characters' every gesture, move and spoken word. Composer Richard Woodbury's reggae music adds a lot of flavor to the proceedings.
Starting at a snail's pace, Slowgirl does build gradually, piquing your interest and pulling you in with increasing curiosity, kind of like a well-directed cable TV movie... due primarily to the riveting direction and fiercely connected performances of its two actors.