BWW Review: Georgia Lyman is THE ATHEIST: I'm a Believer
Written and Directed by Ronan Noone; Scenic Design, Ronan Noone; Lighting Design/Master Electrician, Matthew Breton; Sound Design, Phil Schroeder; Costume Design, Georgia Lyman; Media Advisor, Zachary Dyer; Stage Manager, Katherine Humbert; Technical Director, Marc Olivere; Production Assistant Jake Mellen; Costume Masters, Marzie Ghasempour, Laura J. Neill; Properties Master, Kate Snodgrass; House Managers, Anna Oehlberg, Paisley Piasecki; Front of House Staff, Beirut Balutis, Anmol Dhaliwal, Marzie Ghasempour, Matt Manarchy, Sarah Shin, Alexis Scheer
CAST: Georgia Lyman, Augustine Early
Performances through February 5 at Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston University, 949 Commonwealth Avenue, Boston, MA; Box Office 866-811-4111 or www.BostonPlaywrights.org
Boston Playwrights' Theatre at Boston University has a mission to produce new plays by alumni of its M.F.A. Playwriting Program. Ronan Noone is not only a graduate of the program, but is now an adjunct assistant professor in it. He has written a revision of his play The Atheist, previously produced at the Huntington Theatre Company (2007), the Williamstown Theatre Festival (2008), and off-Broadway (2006), each time with a male lead, that reimagines the satirical comedy with a woman in the solo role. It must be left to those who have seen both versions to determine if the character's gender makes a difference in one's experience of the play, but there is no doubt that Georgia Lyman gives a robust, multi-dimensional performance as crooked tabloid journalist Augustine Early.
Our protagonist quickly figures out that she has a talent for deception, as well as a taste for fame, and somehow determines that Journalism is her best career choice. After a difficult childhood, she loses her faith in God and learns to rely on her wits. The Atheist is told in the first person and Augustine (Lyman) is a charming storyteller, if not an altogether honorable one. It seems that journalistic integrity is a moving target for her, while she never takes her eyes off the prize. Lucrative situations seem to fall into her lap and, with more than a little help from a politician with "tawdry predilections" (imagine!), she experiences a meteoric rise from writing obituaries to covering front-page scandals.
As Augustine caroms from one circumstance to another, drilling further into the muck to find and secure a bigger story, she cannot help but be soiled by the atmosphere around her. It is hard to draw a boundary between her principles and the rest of the world; as she posits, "If nobody else has a conscience, why should you?" Instead, she relies on a set of rules to play the game: 1- choose your words, 2 - defy the image, 3 - set the tone. When it works, Augustine is cocky and in her glory, but there are others who may outsmart her and beat her at her own game. As she navigates the treacherous path, Lyman showcases her skill, turning her emotions on a dime. She pans through a range of expressions varying from hurt, to bloodless, to focused, to vulnerable, to resigned, all with great authenticity.
Lyman's authenticity as an actor is in stark contrast to her character, but that's what makes it work. Watching Augustine's game is disturbing, especially in the strange, new world of distrust of the media, alternate facts, and "post-truth" politics. When the play first came out, the character's antics may have seemed like an anomaly, or good, old-fashioned yellow journalism. In 2017, it feels less like fiction and more like looking in a giant mirror of the media landscape. Noone is all in, taking the helm as director, as well as bearing the responsibility for all of the visual stimuli as scenic designer. One of the most profound effects is having the constant presence of Walter Cronkite's image projected on a massive screen at one end of the set. The late CBS newsman was among the most-trusted voices in America for decades, and seeing him sends a silent signal to the audience that evokes a mix of wistfulness, nostalgia, and anger. How did we get to this? There is no one answer, but The Atheist will leave you to examine the question.
Photo credit: Kalman Zabarsky (Georgia Lyman)