The most interesting character in After Ashley disappears after the first scene. This is Ashley herself, whom we meet while she's watching one of those smarmy television shrinks with her teenage son, Justin. The shrink, Dr. Bob, is giving advice to a sexually incompatible couple, and this leads Ashley to reveal far more than Justin wants to know about her relationship with his father, Alden. Ashley is bored, frustrated and unhappy. By conventional standards, she's also a rotten mother. She teases and flirts with her son, who's suffering from mono. She's casual about tracking his medications. She offers him pot, which she herself smokes daily. She prattles on about how much she dislikes children and suggests that there are women -- such as those she sees on Jerry Springer's show -- who deserve to be beaten. She advises her son to sleep with a lot of girls before settling down and to make sure that if one of them gets pregnant, she has an abortion. "You'll be traumatized for, like, two days," she explains.
Ashley's saving grace is that she clearly adores her son. As a result, you like her even as you note her limitations. Angela Reed is a charming Ashley, and the interplay between mother and son is perfect as Justin alternates between playing parent and begging childishly for a respite from Ashley's flood of confession.
And then Ashley is raped and murdered by a schizophrenic homeless man that her liberal, do-gooder husband insisted she hire to take care of the yard. Justin finds her body, and we hear his frantic 911 call. Despite the operator's warning that the murderer may still be in the house, he refuses to leave his mother's side.
Ricketson Theatre, Denver Performing Arts Complex
Presented by the Denver Center Theatre Company through June 3, 303-893-4100, www.denvercenter.org
The next scene takes place three years later, in the studio of a show called Profiles in Justice. Justin is now famous because of the 911 call; his father has written a book called After Ashley and left his reporting job at the Washington Post. The host of Profiles is David Gavin, whose own claim to fame lies in the murder of his daughter. During the program, David says all the smug things about grief and justice that you expect from shows like this, and Alden plays along while Justin fires off clever, angry, cynical ripostes that are right on the mark. But despite an excellent and vulnerable performance by Tobias Segal and the fact that Justin's comments are clearly fueled by grief, at this point he comes across as a self-righteous and annoying little gnat. And while John G. Preston oozes a wonderfully false and pontifical gravity as David, the scene feels thumpingly obvious. Television shows have been providing fodder for unimaginative comics for decades, and programs like America's Most Wanted pretty much parody themselves.
As the evening continues to unfold, though, you realize there's much more to the play. Playwright Gina Gionfriddo has hit on something genuinely troubling about our commodification of human emotion, something encapsulated in the old Time commercial that implied the grief of the entire world could be folded into the pages of a glossy magazine and placed in a reader's hands: "Time flies, and you are there. Time cries, and lets you care." It reminds me of the way Barbara Walters would ask an interviewee a painful question and, when he hesitated, probe again and again until the tears came. At which point -- when any decent human being would have turned away -- the camera would move in to catch the telltale glisten.
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Not only do we love grief, but we want it packaged in very specific ways. Some kinds of grief are acceptable, others are not. Those that are come wrapped in ready-made phrases and images: Kids with cancer are brave, any soldier who dies was "protecting our freedom," all victims of the September 11 attacks are heroic. The most electric moment in After Ashley occurs when Justin mocks Lisa Beamer, wife of a passenger aboard United Flight 93, for attempting to copyright the phrase "Let's roll!" and releasing a book with that title within a year of her husband's death. On the night I attended, the same Denver Center audience that laughed obligingly at mean-spirited barbs about the homeless and jokes making light of wife-beating was shocked into complete silence by this observation. Someone needed to explore this territory, and Gionfriddo has done it.
Anthony Powell has mounted a production that's youthful, light on its feet and full of lively music and images, and the play starts moving again when Justin runs into a young goth, Julie, in a Florida bar. It doesn't hurt that Julie -- an English student and devotee of Sylvia Plath and Victor Frankl -- is played by Ruth Eglsaer, one of the most darkly luminous and intelligently off-kilter actresses on earth. Julie hits on Justin because she's recognized him as the 911 kid; in some ways, she, too, is a shallow consumer of the grief culture. When she wonders if "I'd be deeper if I'd experienced more darkness" to a seventeen-year-old whose mother was murdered, she seems both blind and shallow. But this is also the cri de coeur of a young woman longing to feel something authentic.
Alden becomes involved in the creation of a huge, luxurious shelter for battered women called Ashley's Place. Though Sam Gregory's performance as Alden is primarily comic, we do feel some empathy and understanding for the character. His wife is dead, Alden reasons. Does the kitschification of her image really matter? And purple ribbons and angel pictures aside, sheltering battered women is obviously a good thing. Justin, however, adheres to another doctrine: truth. To salvage Ashley from her insincere admirers, he summons a strange, slimy figure from her past, a sex videographer played with juicy authority by David Ivers, and publicly reveals her weakness and foolishness to the world. In a sense, his betrayal of Ashley is as complete as that of his father -- whom it devastates. Here Gionfriddo goes deeper than a mere critique of the media or an exploration of the border between private and public. She asks us to consider the meaning of a single, flawed human life, the redemptive importance of memory. Justin cannot grieve for his mother until he reclaims her. It's left to us, the audience, to judge whether his method is justified.