BWW Review: HARLOWE at FAU Theatre Lab
Theatre Lab at Florida Atlantic University recently opened yet another World Premiere in its on-campus theatre at Parliament Hall. Jennifer Lane's Harlowe is a poetic piece of theatre that tugs at the heartstrings with its themes relating to loss and letting go.
Harlowe was first developed under the mentorship of playwright Sarah Ruhl (Eurydice, Dead Man's Cellphone, In the Next Room or The Vibrator Play) and was the winner of the Alec Baldwin Fellowship at Singers Forum. The play was presented in staged readings at Theatre Lab and the Gulfshore Playhouse in 2015. It was also a 2015 Finalist for the Humanities/CTG Playwriting Prize.
Harlowe's title protagonist (played by Leah Sessa) deals with multiple hardships following the drowning death of her mother. After Harlowe becomes pregnant by her ex-boyfriend, he punches her in the stomach, inducing a miscarriage. This trauma causes her to lose her sense of touch.
At the beginning of Act One, Harlowe is first seen in a bathtub filled with running water. She frequently submerges herself below the water so she can listen to the steady rhythm of her heartbeat-something she can no longer truly feel.
Harlowe's father, Edwin (Michael Gioia), self-medicates by drinking; her 14-year-old brother Davis (Elijah Moseley) shuts himself out by playing his PSP; and her older sister Reese (Katherine C. McDonald) is continuously picking up the pieces-paying the bills, acting as a second mother to Davis, and laying down the law in the house. Reese wishes to open the family's backyard pool in the middle of winter in hopes of starting life anew following her mother's passing.
Lane's script is as dynamic as it is introspective. When Harlowe is swimming in her bathtub, she directly addresses the audience with monologues describing the disconnect she experiences in her body. These bathtub monologues contain the juxtapositions and symbolism that almost mimic spoken word poetry. This play also features fast-paced and tightly-crafted scenes that stand out with their own individual story arcs. Even with some serious dialogue, Lane balances this play with humorous (sometimes goofy) lines delivered by Davis and Edwin.
Sessa gives Harlowe's bruised character an almost pure heart. She delivers Harlowe's direct addresses in an active manner, engaging each audience member as she slowly raises herself up from the bathtub. These sermons are as honest as they are clearly articulated. In the water, Sessa appears to be in her element, developing an almost mermaid-like physicality.
As Reese, McDonald delivers an emotionally jarring performance. While she appears stoic and in control near the beginning of Act One, McDonald suddenly explodes in the middle of Act Two, when Reese expresses annoyance and frustration at her sister's histrionics. McDonald carries a heavy weight in her voice and physicality, representing the burden of additional responsibilities placed on her character.
Gioia plays Edwin with a balance of sensitivity, mystery, and hamminess. There is also a clear arc in his character, from a man who sneaks into the bar for a swig of vodka to a loving father who wants his daughter to work toward recovery. Moseley gives Davis a balance of naiveté with wisdom and maturity. He adds a slightly treble and pubescent quality to his voice. Both Moseley and Gioia display effective comic timing in this production.
Jordon Armstrong plays Harlowe's high school sweetheart, Scott. A clear chemistry exists between Armstrong and Sessa. Whether you see them innocently reminiscing about their past or having oral sex in the car, there is a deep connection between the two actors onstage. Armstrong is also unafraid to take risks onstage physically. In one scene, he somersaults from Harlowe's bathroom window and is later pushed into the tub.
Matt Stabile, who directed Harlowe in its Theatre Lab reading, stages this production. Stabile effectively brings together five actors to form a close-knit ensemble. He also creates balanced and symmetrical images in his staging, despite the limited playing space of Theatre Lab's Parliament Hall stage.
Stabile's aesthetic is enhanced by the work of scenic designer Michael McClain. The proscenium arch of this show's set is painted to represent shards of glass, symbolizing the disconnect that Harlowe feels from her sense of touch. The centerpiece of McClain's scenic design would have to be Harlowe's bathtub complete with running water from a functioning shower faucet.
Costume and makeup designer Dawn Shamburger should be praised for giving Harlowe realistic bruises. As the audience views Sessa's Harlowe in the bathtub, they can immediately see the reddish-purple markings on her body. These bruises work well with Sessa's skin tone and do not appear painted on, even from a short distance.
Lighting designer Jayson Tomasheski uses a simple lighting plot to set the mood for Harlowe. While he gives the play's realistic scenes a white and yellow wash, the stage turns a deep blue during Harlowe's monologues-indicating to the audience that they are listening to her inner thoughts. Matt Corey's sound design and original musical score evoke an eerie yet calming mood. His underscoring utilizes deep bass notes that cause the floor to vibrate-creating an effect that represents Harlowe's yearning to hear her heartbeat and come back to life again.
Theatre Lab breathes life into Lane's play with promising performances and simple yet effective stagecraft. Harlowe may be a play about listening to the sounds of silence, but it speaks loudly about the grieving process and how it affects people in different ways. By watching this play, one can learn how to truly listen in the thick, muted quiet of water.
TheatreLab, The Professional Resident Company of Florida Atlantic University presents
Harlowe, by Jennifer Lane.
Directed by Matt Stabile.
*Appears courtesy of Actors Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.
Scenic Design by Michael McClain. Costume and Makeup Design by Dawn Shamburger. Lighting Design by Jayson Tomasheski. Sound Design and Original Music by Matt Corey.
The performance is 1 hour and 40 minutes with one 15 minute intermission.
This production contains nudity and adult themes.
Located at Parliament Hall on the Florida Atlantic University Campus. 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton, FL 33431.
Opened: March 29, 2019. Closing: April 14, 2019.