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Review: Terrific CAN'T COMPLAIN at Spooky Action

The scene in Christine Evans' sharp play at Spooky Action Theatre is instantly recognizable:

The anonymous hospital room full of false cheer. The middle aged woman, a little impatient about being cooped up there after a few days for some tests after a small stroke. The frazzled adult daughter, trying to do her best to take care of her mother's needs while having more than her share of her own problems.

Even so, people convey a faux fortitude in their everyday responses, such as the one that serves as title of the two act premiere that's one of the stronger entries in the Women's Voices Theatre Festival of more than 50 world premieres from female playwrights, CAN'T COMPLAIN.

The mother and daughter have, in fact, a lot to complain about, and yet they share the response to the everyday, "How are you doin' ?"

Having emerged from the New Works in Action process of readings and workshops, CAN'T COMPLAIN is beautifully structured; its entire first scene reveals the reality of the situation with a twist in its final lines. The rest of the play is like that as well, as the regal Rita interacts with her daughter Maureen, as well as crazy old woman who appears and disappears magically on the other bed in the room, her granddaughter Jansis. a nurse's aid, as well as a man who keeps intruding and may be anything from janitor to analyst to her ticket out the place.

As the play continues, the truth slowly emerges about long buried trauma, and a touch of magic realism if not surrealism colors the play. In what begins with one of the most challenging aspects of modern life - finding comfort and safety for elder parents - blossoms into theatrical poetry that is no less clear eyed.

CAN'T COMPLAIN works not just because of Evans' script, but of every element of the play, well directed by Michael Bloom. Chief of that is the cast, led by Cornelia Hart, who is just right as the angry woman of a certain age who nonetheless is trying to maintain dignity and bearing despite all the things she once knew falling all around her.

Tony Beckman, a frequent standout at Taffety Punk, is perfect as the daughter Maureen; her rubbery expressions edge toward laughter or tears, which is about where women in her situation find themselves. Nicole Ruthmarie adds sweetness grace as both the granddaughter and nurse's aid. I only wish someone had taught her a bit of violin to actually play when she is required to do so; her singing voice was fine.

Wendy Wilmer was a little over the top as the brash Irish madwoman in the next bed. She may get on audience's nerves just as she does her poor roommate's. But you can't say you didn't believe her in her role, even as her entrances and exits continued to mystify.

Eric M. Messner, the only man in the play, was fine in his leering menace that he brought to whatever character he brought to the door.

Luciana Stecconi's set was about as snappy as anything at Spooky Action - a fully formed hospital room that nonetheless made way for transcendent change by show's end. Likewise Brian S. Allard's lights subtly changed to set the mood accordingly.

The achievement of CAN'T COMPLAIN is also to the glory of the New Works in Action program. If plays like this are the result of its process, I can't wait to see more.

Two hours with one 10 minute intermission.

CAN'T COMPLAIN, by Spooky Action Theater, continues through Oct. 25 at the Universalist National Memorial Church, 1810 16th St. NW, Washington D.C. For tickets call 202-248-0301 or go online.

Photo: Cornelia Hart and Nicole Ruthmarie in Spooky Action's CAN'T COMPLAIN. Photo by Franc Rosario.

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