Poetry in Commotion

Missing Persons finds a way to laugh at our troubles.

Poets are often harbingers of truth who rail about society's ills from the relative safety of life's cheap seats. They weather worldly rejection and familial contempt in the hope that something they say or do will better the human race. The knotted-up artistes at the epicenter of Craig Lucas's Missing Persons are all that and more.

Erstwhile scribe (and part-time slag dealer) Hat Pencke has a case of creative inadequacy that's driving his family -- and a couple of related ghosts -- nuts. His mother, Swarthmore literary critic Addie Pencke, is haunted by ancient memories that literally waltz through her suburban Philadelphia house like a loopy, nonstop parade; and Hat's image-conscious wife, Joan, has fallen out of love with the idea of being an artist's wife, preferring instead a local food-bagger's comparatively dependable ways. As if the Pencke family's difficulties weren't enough, next-door neighbor Gemma Calabrese, a frequent visitor to the Pencke household this Thanksgiving weekend, seems to have lost both her mind and her manners since recently becoming a single mother. To wit, she can't restrain impulses to hurl food at Joan and, moments later, bed down with Hat.

The 1995 off-Broadway play is being given its regional premiere at the Avenue Theater by producer/director John Ashton. Featuring a solid cast, some clever sight gags and Lucas's wittily poetic dialogue, the near-two-hour show remains entertaining throughout while touching on several interrelated subjects: What do we do with our memories and feelings in an age that requires us to store them before they've been processed? Why do the very forces that inspire artists to create -- especially the families who molded their beginnings -- wind up crippling them? And are artists (not to mention their critics) guilty of championing standards that, save for a godlike few, are impossible to realize?

Eric Hansen and Judy Phelan-Hill let it all hang out in Missing Persons.
Eric Hansen and Judy Phelan-Hill let it all hang out in Missing Persons.

Some scenes are staged simultaneously but occur in different realms, including this or that character's mind: While talking with the newly single Gemma, for instance, Hat interrupts himself to reenact a conversation he recently had with his wife (who suddenly appears on stage from an unlikely place) about getting a divorce -- and then shifts back to the flirtatious Gemma. After a couple of episodes, (including visitations from a ten-year-old Hat and Hat's long-lost father, Tucker), the actors establish the idea that they're dealing with abiding memories and feelings as well as current ones. And the theatrical time/place traveling is easy to understand and appreciate.

Indeed, the actors revel in the play's humor and make hairpin emotional turns while wading through the thickets of overlapping speech and supernatural happenings. Despite the fact that the play presents a number of technical challenges (nearly all of which were adequately dealt with on opening night), the performers effortlessly blend the offbeat with the everyday: These are people we know we've met somewhere in our own lives, yet they possess qualities that make them appear almost otherworldly.

Veteran character actress Judy Phelan-Hill proves engaging as Addie, the mother who comes to realize that her greatest talent is her ability to appreciate -- and influence -- another's talent. On stage for most of the show, Phelan-Hill steadily navigates the play's more precipitous changes in mood and tone, thereby serving as the ensemble's quietly effective rudder. John Arp touches and amuses as her tortured son, Hat, embodying the poet's frustration and burning desire in the space of a few short words. Waxing rhapsodic about the conflict between his devotion to his mother and his art, he says of both, "I have a diatribe burning in me always, and each and every word sounds like her." Amie MacKenzie turns in a fine portrait of Hat's had-it-up-to-here wife, Joan, a quintessentially ambivalent woman who has trouble understanding why her husband can't give her a life of suburban comfort and bohemian pleasure. "Who reads it?" she scorns of Hat's poetic ramblings. "Six other poets?"

Cini Bow shows that she's capable of playing characters more mature than a corn-dog-chomping adolescent (Dearly Departed) or cartoonish farmer's wife (Babe the Sheep-Pig), exuding both poignant feeling and irrepressible whimsy as Gemma the whacked-out, relationship-challenged neighbor. Eric Hansen has some tender, quasi-Buddhist moments as Steve, a bagger at the local Food Lion. Denver School of the Arts student Charly Lewis more than holds his own playing the ten-year-old version of Hat. And Chris Reid lends warmth and vitality to Tucker, one of several thankless roles that Reid has recently imbued with his appealing brand of understated vigor.

All in all, Missing Persons says as much about the dynamics of artistic creation as it does about family matters, and the Avenue's production sheds some light on the strange interrelatedness of it all.

 
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