Review: Mimi Kennedy, Gordon Clapp Dazzle in World Premiere of PRU PAYNE at Arizona Theatre Company

Steven Drukman's poignantly candid play sheds light on mental illness and the invigorating power of love.

By: Mar. 14, 2023
Review: Mimi Kennedy, Gordon Clapp Dazzle in World Premiere of PRU PAYNE at Arizona Theatre Company
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When Arizona Theatre Company redesigned its programming two years ago, a cloud of ambivalence engulfed a complacent viewing public. The company's commitment to supporting uncharted material by a working crop of playwrights signaled ATC's pivot to empower new voices -- a bold proposition amidst a surging pandemic.

With its current production of PRU PAYNE, the company has reached a flashpoint in its two-year experiment. Steven Drukman's scintillating new play, directed by Sean Daniels, is a huge payoff for the audacity to stake unfamiliar territory.

Drukman's portrait of a brilliant woman who suffers from cognitive decline is a cautionary tale about our transient lives and keeping love's power at bay. A compelling aside: PRU PAYNE digs at the political underbelly of a declining nation, as Drukman suggests in his program notes. He ascribes the play's genesis to a bleak national amnesia epitomized by an "unruly populace." And Prudence Payne -- astute arbiter of culture and purveyor of pedantic alliteration -- pierces the fourth wall with a sober warning to remain vigilant in moments of political discord.

Drukman and Daniel's initial collaboration saw its first stage reading of the play at Merrimack Repertory Theatre in November 2018. We're not privy to the attendant drafts, but the completed product is sublime theatre. For 90 riveting minutes on opening night, the Temple of Music and Art became the fictional hotbed for a groundbreaking Broadway achievement.

I gain no swag for dispensing platitudes, but bear with me for being a tad smitten: PRU PAYNE is the best to come out of ATC's lineup in recent years. It's heartbreaking, funny, and fiercely intelligent. Twenty years after his Pulitzer Prize nomination for ANOTHER FINE MESS, Drukman stands an excellent shot at his second one with PRU PAYNE, and he will have ATC to thank for hosting its world premiere.

Consider the production elements: James Fenton's scenic design features a spectral display of rectangular frames around and above the stage, their contours lit intermittently by the superbly talented Philip Rosenberg (Broadway's A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder, Pretty Woman, Mrs. Doubtfire). An enormous black-and-white headshot of a tormented Prudence usurps the blank cyclorama, a fading visage behind the cold geometry of detached frames, portals to a once-lucid mind. Minimalism never felt so imposing.

A distinguished cast headlines Mimi Kennedy (Dharma and Greg, Mom, Erin Brockovich, Midnight in Paris) and Emmy/SAG Award winner Gordon Clapp (NYPD Blue, Chicago Fire, Deadwood, and Glengarry Glen Ross on Broadway). Such explosive chemistry is worth a lot more than the price of witnessing it, which amounts to a first-rate masterclass in acting. Sean Daniels - ever democratic in facilitating his ensemble - helms a delicately refined production, allowing his accomplished team of artists to shape his creative vision. It's his greatest gift as a director.

Mimi Kennedy renders an imperious and brassy Pru Payne (her public moniker). She's a renowned intellectual, feared for her trenchant criticism and scathing takedowns of mediocre aspirations (a faint redolence of critic Michiko Kakutani's public feuds with John Updike and Norman Mailer et al). Pru exists in the lofty penthouse of her intellect. She deflects the impulse to linger in subterranean sentiments -- until she loses her bearing and meets Gus Cudahy.

Gus is a simple man with a modest background. He is nowhere near Pru's level of erudition but enthralls with youthful charisma and middlebrow authenticity. A lifelong school custodian, Gus struggles with memory lapses, leading him to the same hospital where Pru is under the care of Doctor Dolan (played with stoic geekiness by Veronika Duerr).

Gordon Clapp unquestionably fits the bill, blending Gus' jovial mischief with a benevolent heart that charms its way to Prudence (he prefers her real name). They may grasp at straws to recall material details, but they've found mutual joy in that liminal stage of awareness, where chilling anxiety pervades without the other's presence.

Pru's quick transformation boggles her son, Thomas (Tristan Turner), Pru's sole caregiver and a budding scholar (he plans to finish her memoir.) Thomas has grown accustomed to seeing his proud mother eschew notions of romantic love but learns to see her differently when her mighty intellect dissolves into sheer emotional dependency. Thomas supports the couple's growing intimacy, with a generous assistance from Gus's son, Art (Greg Maraio).

Love overrides all imperfections as we chart the end of life 20 years into the future. We recognize Art and Thomas as a happily married couple, fortified by the shared caregiving of their parents. Prudence, in her advanced stage of dementia, cannot mourn Gus' passing (how are we to know?). She's a fragile shell of her magnificent past, a lonely exile of affluent memories.

But Drukman is too good of a dramatist to end there. A dream-like sequence, not unlike some of the finest dream ballets, reveals Gus and Prudence meeting for a dance encore (splendid sound design by Leon Rothenberg), which is how they best remember each other. Stagecraft units in full tilt, Gus slowly lets her go as she heads downstage to acknowledge her audience. Though Prudence incessantly inveighed against artistic endeavors that failed to meet her standards, she smiles and leaves us with two wistfully ironic words, "Good enough."

My take: It's better than good enough. See it or miss out.

Photo Credit: Tim Fuller

PRU PAYNE continues in Tucson through 3/25/23; Phoenix: 3/30 - 4/16/23

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