BWW Review: EASY WOMEN SMOKING LOOSE CIGARETTES at Signature Theatre
Dani Stoller's Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes is Signature Theatre's 60th world premiere performance, and is the 19th to be written by a woman, as part of this season's Heidi Thomas Writers' Initiative. Signature's commitment to fostering original works is commendable, and it's especially rewarding when it gives a platform to shows like Stoller's.
Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes opens with Marian (Susan Rome) escorting her daughter, Lee (Shanara Gabrielle), into her Florida home for an unexpected visit. Lee clearly wants to discuss the reason behind her sudden arrival, but Marian prefers to putter about, setting up Lee in the study while filling her in on her book club, suggesting they go for yoga and pampering sessions together, and updating her on the goings-on in her home. In addition to Lee, Marian and her second husband, Richard (John Leslie Wolfe), are hosting Richard's eighteen-year-old pregnant niece, Kitty (Jordan Slattery), and Bobby (John Austin), the boy next door with a tragic past and a bright future - Marian refers to their home as a "halfway house for emotional fuckups." But when Lee's particular issues can't be glazed over any longer and are a danger to the others in the house, the whole family must grapple with both Lee's actions and their own internal struggles.
Stoller's script is smart, insightful, and funny - the dialogue flows realistically, particularly as we watch Marian and others try to sort through their own tangled emotions, their understandings of guilt and responsibility, and what the members of their family mean to each other. From passing jabs to deep discussions, every word is carefully chosen, as is every movement directed by Stevie Zimmerman. Stoller and Zimmerman present complete, rounded, complicated characters and clearly give the audience a sense of their relationships and space; when the action is focused on one scene, the audience is still able to track the movements of others in the house. In one particularly touching scene between Marian and Richard, the audience is able to understand their entire relationship - how they support each other, the baggage they each carry from their past relationships, and how well they understand what the other needs. Likewise, even a silent background exchange between Kitty and Bobby gives the audience a quick snapshot of their friendship, and helps set the tone for their other interactions. Even Lee and Marian's complicated relationship, revealed throughout the show, is carefully framed and presented. Credit for this must, of course, be shared with Intimacy Coordinator Casey Kaleba, Stage Manager Karen Currie, and Assistant Stage Manager Samantha Wilhelm; a production this emotionally intelligent and intimate requires a strong production team, and Signature's clearly delivers.
Helping with the presentation, of course, is the wonderful costume design by Debra Kim Sivigny, and Andrew Cissna and Kenny Neal's smart lighting and sound designs, respectively - Neal also gets credit for the hilarious intermission song selections, which are a great juxtaposition to the tense Act I closing. Most notable, though, is Megan Raham's scenic design; when I first saw Raham's set, my immediate thought was "Florida," which shows just how perfect it truly was. But it's the details Raham has placed around the stage - from books on the coffee table to the CD collection to photos hung in the light pink hall leading to the kitchen - that give the show such a strong sense of place.
But the true highlight of this production is Kelly Crandall d'Amboise's brilliant casting. Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes features a solid, wonderful cast, and it's their work that really makes this production so enjoyable. Each actor has a clear sense of their character and gives the audience insights in the smallest movements, from how they track each other across the stage to the exact angles they hold their hands up during Marian's hilarious breathing lesson.
John Austin, as Bobby, is so sweet, lost, and traumatized that you just want to give him a hug and tell him he'll be all right. Thankfully, Jordan Slattery's Kitty does it for you - Slattery plays Kitty with just the right balance of pushback against Bobby's defenses and tender support for him. Likewise, Austin lets Bobby drop his tension in small, noticeable doses each time Slattery joins the scene, showing the effect her character has on his. The tenderness between Bobby and Kitty was so perfectly sweet, especially during the shaving scene, it's one of the highlights of the show, especially in the wake of Lee's destructive behavior toward Bobby.
As Richard, John Leslie Wolfe manages to provide a steady, affable character who's the solid foundation for this little family, without ever allowing him to become a stock cutout. Richard isn't immune to the chaos around him - Wolfe's amusing coping takes the form of quick facial expressions that are smoothed away before others see, sneaking extra whiskey, and pursuing the CDs while the others have their eyes closed for Marian's vaginal breathing techniques. And yet, none of these feel disrespectful; on the contrary, Wolfe's character is clearly clear-eyed about those around him, but still supportive of those he loves.
Susan Rome shines as Marian, giving an emotional, layered performance. Her struggles as she tries to figure out how to help her daughter while grappling with her own past are beautifully heartbreaking. It's easy to see her conflicting emotions - her love for her daughter, her emotional baggage, how the two clash as she learns about her daughter's actions, and her desire to be a good mother without losing herself or her hard-won sense of peace. Shanara Gabrielle, as Lee, shows the audience a woman who is so clearly hurt and struggling, it's impossible to ever fully turn against her even as her actions harm those around her. There's a vulnerability Gabrielle brings to the character that brings the audience to her side, and in her shaper moments she's incredibly likable. The explosive fight between Rome's Marian and Gabrielle's Lee was one of the high points in a solid performance - their blow-up, which ended Act I, was carefully constructed from the instant they walked through the front door in the opening, from passing swipes to refusals to let each other finish damning sentences to attempts to brush aside the truth of why they were there. When Lee's actions finally push Marian to a breaking point, it's nothing short of stunning to watch these two actresses cut loose on each other and spar with a ferocity that reflects the tension the audience has been feeling since the first line. But what's equally stunning is their ability to move from tehat blowup to a place of understanding and support - Rome and Gabrielle's comradery at the end of the show is just as compelling as their quarreling.
If I were going to critique anything, it would be three - minor - things, two of which are purely script issues: although most of the characters show tremendous growth, Marian continues to be quite judgmental toward Kitty, who proves herself time and again to be quite insightful. In the final scene, when Marian makes a snide remark about Kitty, it felt quite out of place, given the development we've seen in nearly every other aspect of each character in the show. Additionally, just once, I wanted to hear someone bring up therapy, which a number of the characters most certainly need. Lastly, as a staging issue, the first row of the audience was practically in the scene, which was great for intimacy, but occasionally made those of us seated there feel like we were watching a tennis match - the show is so strong, and each actor brings such careful detail to their performance, I was disappointed that I was just a little too close and likely missed a few things in looking back and forth.
But, in truth, none of these criticisms detract from the fact that Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes is a smart, insightful show with an incredibly talented cast and production team. It's a heartfelt, surprisingly funny, and achingly realistic portrayal of a family struggling with their demons, brought to life by an outstanding team.
Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes plays at Signature Theatre through March 29. Run time is approximately two hours with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets, special performances, and other show information can be found on the Signature website.
CW: sexual assault, references to suicide.
Photos by Christopher Mueller.