Like the mid-life crisis that its central character frequently describes but rarely experiences, local dramatist Coleen Hubbard's play A Ritual for Returning has all the makings of a cathartic event but never actually becomes one. But though it has yet to realize its dramatic potential, this freewheeling romp through the vagaries of middle-class life is stimulating--sometimes even hilarious. Currently on stage at The Shop in a world-premiere production by New Vistas Theater Company, the play is superbly directed by Jeremy Cole, artfully designed by Cole and Doug Peterson, and well-acted by an ensemble of veteran performers.
Billed as a "contemporary Wizard of Oz for adults," the play begins, appropriately enough, with its heroine, Kendra (Gracie Carr), maniacally pedaling atop a stationary bicycle to the familiar strains of "Over the Rainbow." We quickly learn that the Denver domestic goddess, who fashions hand-painted tennis shoes in her spare time, has temporarily left her husband, Greg (Michael Katt), and their two small children in order to find spiritual enlightenment on a farm in Nebraska. (Wouldn't a new-age artist's colony in New Mexico have been a better choice?)
But even though Kendra is able to momentarily escape the drudgery of her surroundings, she can't outdistance her private demons, which include a ubiquitous apparition known as Bad News (Matt Cohen). What's more, Kendra's father, Ty (evidently short for "typical overbearing father," portrayed by John Mandes), appears on stage in a series of flashback scenes, forcing Kendra to confront their fractious relationship. Later in the play, a supposedly mature, adult version of Kendra returns her father's earlier lack of affection, refusing to interrupt her pilgrimage to the plains when she learns that Ty's bum ticker has earned him a stay in the hospital. Instead, she takes comfort in forming friendly alliances with a Maybelline saleswoman, Taryn (Anna Hadzi), and a lime-green-pantsuited "knitting machine," Glory (Betsy Grisard), both of whom accompany the fugitive housewife on her journey to an all-natural, negativity-free commune owned by Naomi (Cody Alexander), a gypsy farm woman.
To his credit, Cole wisely keeps the action moving at a breakneck clip, effectively mitigating the undertow of a few of the playwright's more static scenes. For instance, just when we tire of Kendra wallowing in some aspect of her identity crisis, Cohen dashes on stage as a deranged poet trapped in the body of a telephone repairman (complete with Nelson Riddle-like music that punctuates his dramatic exit). Or after a particularly reflective moment, such as when Kendra mourns her unfulfilled desire to become an anthropologist, Ty immediately enters on a child's tricycle and, Bugs Bunny slippers prominently displayed, utters a fatherly pronouncement. As played against Peterson's Romper Room-like set, Cole's inventive approach to Hubbard's script underscores Kendra's overriding wish to view the world with a preschooler's innate gift for make-believe.
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But if Kendra's inner-child travelogue is ever to become a full-fledged excursion into the murky waters of adulthood, playwright Hubbard needs to deepen the character's surface-level self-examination with a few more substantial scenes of confrontation between Kendra and her significant others. For even though Kendra makes a life out of avoidance, a play about her difficulties must be grounded in head-to-head conflict. For example, Kendra's all-too-brief adolescent altercation with her father concerning his bullheaded determination to shovel snow (despite his heart condition) makes up the show's most powerful scene. Nearly as electrifying is a potent snippet of conversation between Kendra and her husband: In a quiet, moving moment, Greg responds to one of his wife's soul-purging diatribes by saying simply, "I have laundry to do. And my father-in-law is in the ICU." Short-lived though such dramatic moments might be, they nonetheless reveal more about Kendra's personality than any amount of rambling narration. After all, even Shakespeare supplemented Hamlet's character-defining soliloquies with a series of illuminating showdowns between the Dane and his loved ones.
Dramaturgical problems aside, Cole manages to elicit several outstanding portrayals from his cast. Leading the company is Carr, with an ebullient portrait of the mantra-muttering Kendra. Cohen imbues his delightful collection of vagrants and wackos with lurching commentaries on what passes for normalcy these days, while Katt's long-suffering husband is a model for hordes of contemporary Sisyphuses who daily burn the proverbial candle at both ends.
Coupled with Cole's directing skills and Peterson's design contributions, such high-quality acting is a healthy sign that Hubbard is only a step or two from fashioning a play as mature in its character development as this early effort is precocious in its outlook.
A Ritual for Returning, presented by New Vistas Theater Company through June 13 at The Shop, 416 East 20th Avenue, 355-4347.