Reaching for Comfort is, among other things, a study of dysfunction: dysfunctional birth families, dysfunction within marriage, a dysfunctional society. The play opens in 1980. John Lennon has been shot. Ronald Reagan is about to become president. We're fully absorbed in the characters' personal lives, but those lives are also shaped and framed by their historical context, and the play's violence is underscored by the violence of our culture, symbolized by the Vietnam War and by such figures as Charles Manson and Mark David Chapman, Lennon's killer.
Miles -- meek, hapless, kindly and suffering from significant hearing loss -- is a school custodian married to an ill-tempered and abusive nurse, Pam. Miles's brother, Frank, believes that his own wife, Karen, is cheating on him. Rather than make any attempt to discover what Karen is feeling and thinking, he wants Miles to spy on her. At the bus stop, Miles meets Teresa Gomez, a woman as warm and nurturing as his own wife is cruel. And then there's Karen's lover, a hypocritical, womanizing Mormon by the name of Geoff Jeffries. The story is told in a succession of vivid scenes and monologues.
Nothing good can come of all this, and despite some moments of tenderness, nothing good does. Each character reaches for comfort in his or her own way, and each is denied. But watching these attempts and their unraveling is a fascinating experience.
This is local writer Josh Hartwell's first play, and it augurs well for him. It's edgy, interesting and sometimes profound, showing both heart and wit. Most of the characters are multi-dimensional and original. There are flaws, however. I found some of the dialogue unconvincing, and a couple of the characters were less fleshed out than others: Teresa Gomez is perhaps a little too good, and Geoff Jeffries too unrelentingly creepy. I think Miles is intended to carry more symbolic significance than he actually conveys -- references to the Elephant Man suggest that Miles, too, is intended as a kind of archetypal freak and outsider. But deafness isn't really that freaky, and -- although they may feel themselves isolated -- the deaf don't generally arouse the same horror or fascination that the physically deformed do. The play's ending doesn't entirely satisfy, either: The plot starts a lot of hares without running all of them to ground.
But there's also a lot to admire. In particular, the character of Pam is an astonishing achievement -- and Cini Bow brings the woman to coruscating life. When Bow first entered, I wasn't sure she had the role under control. She seemed a little off-kilter, out of focus somehow. This may have been deliberate; it may also have been a sign of the huge emotional burden the actress was about to assume. Bringing Pam Lynch to life can't be an easy task. With her viciousness, self-pity and sense of victimization, Lynch is as penetrating a portrait of an abuser as I can remember seeing. Bow explores fully not only her hair-trigger rage, but also her professional competence, her smooth, chatty way of presenting herself in social situations, and her moments of profound longing.
Under the direction of Jim Hunt, all of the acting is very good. Jeff Bull is a gentle Miles, who relates to the other characters with all the vulnerable openness of a pound puppy. I very much enjoyed watching Trina O'Neill as Karen, though I wondered if she wasn't too composed and intelligent for the character. It's hard to believe this woman would mouth new-age platitudes or trot off trustingly with the ghastly Geoff Jeffries. Frank is not only a macho conspiracy theorist, but also -- as played by Bryan Marshall -- a somewhat warmhearted goof. Given this portrayal, I had trouble believing that Frank would betray his brother as absolutely as he does. Rosie Goodman could bring a little more variety to her performance as Teresa, but she's very appealing in the role. And Rance Baker comes across as precisely the kind of religious huckster we've seen on TV shows: slight, muscled, and vacuously grinning.
This play travels close to the edge, sometimes threatening to topple into melodrama, but it's never sentimental or obvious. Reaching for Comfort is a feather in the Theatre Group's cap, the kind of risk-taking work that enlivens an often too predictable Denver scene.
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