Playwright Michele Lowe writes well about art, and the central character in her Map of Heaven is an artist, Lena, whose paintings are maps of imaginary places, and who's about to have her first big show. As the play opens, she consults in her studio with longtime dealer and gallery owner Rebecca about which pieces to display. But while Lena's career is on the upswing, her radiologist husband is tiring of his profession. Once so dedicated that he moved heaven and earth to open a clinic for poor women, putting in endless hours, courting the powerful, he's now spending less and less time at his work and more and more time flying — an occupation for which he's developed a passion. So he's hoping that Lena will find a level of recognition that allows him to quit being a doctor. Ian's sister, Jen, is also on a downward trajectory professionally. She's waitressing for a living, despite having once been a lawyer.
The first major plot twist is a little implausible: a breast cancer patient, apparently neglected six months earlier by Ian, turns out to be Rebecca's sister, and this could throw Lena's opening and entire career into jeopardy. This seemed too much of a coincidence, but I was enjoying the play and willed myself to believe. But the second twist, which reveals the reason for Ian's inaction, threw me so completely that I lost faith. Nothing in his character had prepared me for his odd reasoning, and I simply couldn't buy the medical details. The characters began feeling less like people and more like ciphers pressed into the service of an ever-creakier plot.
The one character who remains vivid throughout (though I rather regretted her moment of softening and insight) is Jen, a true original, self-pitying, vulnerable and angry. Jen's complaints to Lena and spats with her brother are wonderful to watch, as is her self-congratulation at the beginning of the play, when she's just saved the life of a customer who started choking at her restaurant. The implied irony is interesting, too: waitress Jen saving a life while big-shot doctor brother Ian may just have destroyed one.
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Map of Heaven
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through February 26, Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org.
Jessica Love, tall, disheveled and sulkily sexy, is a perfect Jen. But then, all of the acting is first-rate, so good it almost papers over the plot problems. You can't help liking Stephanie Janssen's Lena, so honest and well-meaning, and Angela Reed is brittle and beautiful as Rebecca. Quentin Maré makes Ian exactly as moody and annoying as he's supposed to be, and never allows his eventual show of vulnerability to descend into sentimentalism.
Director Evan Cabnet is new to the Denver Center, and he deserves credit not only for the casting, but for the overall quality of the production. David M. Barber's set and Charles R. MacLeod's lighting, evocative of old maps and sea serpents, beautifully create the high-end New York milieu and provide pleasure in themselves. Clint Ramos's costumes are very witty, perhaps a touch too much in spots: While Rebecca grieved for her sister, I found my attention straying again and again to those amazingly high and stylish shoes.