BWW Review: Beneath the Melodrama, PETIE Pulsates with Warmth
Death has a way of leaving people stuck in their tracks. Bonnie grieving for her drowned son, the title character, is a prime example. For the past 10 years PETIE's death has left her entombed in a morass of guilt, unable to move forward emotionally or beyond the front door, literally. The foundation of Bonnie's pain is Petie's murder by his mentally ill and physically abusive father whom Bonnie allowed back into their lives following a prison stint. Their daughter Jesse, is equally shellshocked; struck with PTSD related amnesia, she relives pieces of that tragic day without resolution. In a classic case of "give it to me; you can't have it", Jesse's frantic plea for Bonnie to dispel the mystery of what happened is refused leaving both perpetually on the edge of breaking apart.
Playwright, Lori Fischer plays Bonnie as a hysterical woman who extols religious platitudes absorbed from her best friend, a radio minister she has never met yet to whom she has surrendered all rational thought. Though set in modern-day Red Bank, Tennessee, PETIE is essentially a Greek tragedy. Like the heroes of those classics, Bonnie is a sad portrait of proud thoughtlessness corroded by self-inflicted loathing. Through a series of flashbacks, it is revealed she knew that allowing her husband - a folksy Judson Jones as Daddy - to return home was wrong. She did so ostensibly because the Bible says to forgive, but actually because she loves him and hoped that things would work out. Fischer's text and full bodied performances are wonderful in fleshing out this desperate delusion with an immediacy that feels genuine and urgent. Even when parroting the same tired speech - to forget and forgive the unforgivable - Bonnie does so with chirping crispness. It is clear that her daughter has heard what Bonnie wants to tell more than once and that the tired tale is expanding into an insurmountable gulf.
Unfortunately the audience is forced to sit through this emotional vomit two scenes too many. Exposition spills out through these moments - confessional blackmail sessions with sales agents wherein Bonnie regales the captive phone operators with stories as a form of therapy - but what is learned proves revelatory only during the final confession, a tour de force self-flagellation that leaves all drenched with tears. One wishes that Fischer showed a measure of dramaturgical restraint here; stream-lined the lesser moments and cut directly to the kill. Memories of Petie from when he was alive, while used to balance out the misery, are equally problematic. While lovingly rendered by a first rate Grayson Taylor as an adorably perfect kid who "wants to give the whole world a hug", these scenes calcify into rose-tinted saccharine. It is understandable for memories of the dear and departed to focus on the positive but as deployed here, the effect feels manipulative and sappy, as if the Fischer did not trust the audience to connect the dots.
Despite this, Martha Banta has done a fine job of directing this production, especially in regards to crafting evocative stage pictures. Most effective of all is the decision to allow the floor to collect debris, as if the resulting clutter reflected a tortured inner landscape. Less agreeable is the decision to leave Jones trapped onstage in a boat, or overcoming certain undeveloped subplots, for instance: Daddy giving his beautiful Petie a woman's scarf. These blunt manifestations of what occupies Bonnie's mind are more distracting than illuminating. What sets PETIE right, and serves as its true center is Arielle Goldman's Jesse. Her character is on a mission and makes actively bad decisions pursuing it, but Goldman is so compelling and clear in her resolve that the audience cheers her actions even when they are criminal. Though PETIE is smothered in melodrama, Goldman reveals the wonder shining beneath.
PETIE runs through October 7th, 2017 at Urban Stages. For tickets and more information, visit: urbanstages.org