'The Exceptionals' World Premiere at Merrimack Rep

By: Feb. 16, 2011

The Exceptionals

Written by Bob Clyman, Directed by Charles Towers, Scenery Designed by Judy Gailen, Costumes Designed by Deborah Newhall, Lighting Designed by Brian Lilienthal, Sound Designed by Jason E. Weber, Stage Manager Emily F. McMullen, Assistant Stage Manager Peter Crewe

CAST (in order of appearance): Catherine Eaton (Allie), Carolyn Baeumler (Gwen), Judith Lightfoot Clarke (Claire), Joseph Tisa (Tom)

Performances through March 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre; Box Office 978-654-4MRT (4678) or www.merrimackrep.org

When the words "world premiere" precede the title of a play, it is a suggestion, if not an invitation, for the critic to sharpen a pencil and prepare to slog through a thicket of dialogue and scenes which may not see the light of day in future productions. It is understood that the playwright may make numerous changes throughout the rehearsal process as the story transitions from the page to the stage and the director and actors help to literally breathe life into the characters. With an accomplished history of producing new work, the Merrimack Repertory Theatre is now presenting the world premiere of The Exceptionals, the third play by Bob Clyman that Artistic Director Charles Towers has brought to his Lowell audience.

Thanks to a 2010 Edgerton Foundation New American Play Award to MRT which allots additional rehearsal and development time for new plays, it is hard to believe that this is the maiden voyage for The Exceptionals. No sharp pencil is required for Clyman's script which boasts both a contemporary context and an age-old parental conundrum. Employing scientific jargon that does not confound and consistently crisp dialogue laced with bracing humor, he examines the issue of raising exceptional children and influences us to consider our own ethical boundaries when it comes to making choices for the education and socialization of our offspring.  

Set in the near future at the offices of a donor insemination research program, two mothers are brought together to meet with Claire (Judith Lightfoot Clarke), the parent liaison of the program, to discuss the opportunity of a lifetime for their respective sons. Gwen (Carolyn Baeumler) is a well-educated (all but orals Ph. D. candidate) divorcée who is uptight and extremely attached to her five-year old Ethan.  One look at Allie (Catherine Eaton) is enough to discern that she is Gwen's polar opposite. A loose cannon whose default position is to buck authority, Allie uses her external swagger to camouflage an underemployed brain. She and her husband Tom (Joseph Tisa), a salesman trying to find a new niche, struggle to be relevant to their five-year old son Michael. As they consider artificial insemination for the second time, the idea of an average child appeals to them, but, as Claire informs them, there's no market for average sperm.

The opportunity that Claire presents is a new educational program only for the crème de la crème, and Ethan and Michael are on a very short list of candidates for what Claire likens to an orchestra. It is important to have the right blend to give the program the greatest chance for success as it will be under much scrutiny. The catch is that the "team" views the two boys as a matched set; they will accept both or neither, requiring a large amount of parentAl Cooperation between the families. As a result, the adults are also scrutinized and their behaviors and motivations come into question. They spar with each other and try to negotiate the best outcome for their children, despite their own foibles and faux pas.

Clyman draws his characters distinctly and this wonderful cast adds their own flavor to the portrayals. Claire is confident, officious, and brooks no nonsense. Clarke employs a clipped delivery of her snappish lines and conveys a superior attitude with her body language and tone of voice so there is no doubt that she is a prickly pear. Yet, Claire is not one dimensional as she is fiercely protective of the program and genuinely looking out for what she believes is in the best interests of these gifted boys. Clarke also displays just a hint of vulnerability, a tiny chink in Claire's armor, as it were.

The script fills in back stories so we know where the characters are coming from and how they process their conflicting emotions. Gwen's insecurity has kept her from completing her doctorate and adds to the weight of the decision she faces for Ethan's future. Baeumler plays her as edgy and overwrought on the surface, but doles out glimpses of the inner child who wants to be liked and is terrified of getting in trouble. Allie appears better equipped to deal head on with the issue at hand. Eaton channels some Rhoda Morganstern in her depiction of the mother who, having had her own difficulties in school for being smarter than average, is now trying to strike a balance between grabbing the brass ring and sheltering her boy. She has the additional challenge of having to work with a partner who needs to figure out a way to just be a dad to his intellectually-superior son. Tisa is slow out of the gate to show any nuance in Tom, but his self-explanations in the second act are strong and true, and he and Eaton eventually convince us of their connection as a loving couple in a tender reconciliation scene. 

Director Towers gets Clyman and creates the ideal environment for telling his story. He allows the actors the latitude to put their spin on the characters, but Towers sets the pace that never lags and hits the mark every time with Clyman's unexpected humor. Judy Gailen's set is sleek and uncluttered (the way Claire likes things) with walls of frosted glass, a nearly bare desk and coffee table, and four chairs. Deborah Newhall's costume designs visually express the women's different personalities with Claire in a smart suit, Gwen in nondescript brown skirt and jacket, and Allie in platform shoes, leather jacket, gold lamé, and too much gaudy jewelry.

The one trait shared by the three parents is devotion to their children and the innate imperative to do their best by them. As the representative of the scientific community, Claire has a similar goal, but her approach virtually eliminates the human element. Clyman cleverly sets up this contest between Brave New World eugenics and parental desire in a way that we can experience the quandary along with Gwen, Allie, and Tom and understand that there is no easy answer. In the end, a very personal decision may have widespread public repercussions.   


Photo Credit: Meghan Moore (Joseph Tisa, Catherine Eaton, Judith Lightfoot Clarke, Carolyn Baeumler)