The trouble with message plays is the annoying tendency of the moral to get stuck in your throat as the playwright tries to ram it down. Very unpleasant. That's why a play like Mark Dunn's The Deer and the Antelope Play is rare and welcome: Its message is so clear, so real and so natural that it can be swallowed whole. And the world premiere at the Avenue Theater makes the entire exercise a pleasure.
An old lady bustles in her kitchen as the play opens. Eleanor has taken in her middle-aged daughter, Carol, along with Carol's grown daughter, Mindy, a troubled young woman who may have set her mother's house on fire. For some reason she can't explain, Eleanor has also decided to take in a boarder, Kenetta, a lively floozy with a sterling soul. And it is Kenetta who will find just the right key to unlock Mindy's self-perpetuating prison.
Each of the women in this play faces loneliness and transition. Each has a dark secret, as well as personal flaws that make change and growth difficult. At first Kenetta irritates both Carol and Mindy--she's so breezy, they think she's a call girl. And in a way, she is--she does phone sex for a living. But Kenetta also possesses something the others desperately need: a tenacious joy for life.
Eleanor has loved the same man for forty years but married another. Now her beloved's wife is dead, one of his sons has died, and he needs her. So Carol decides to drive her mother to see her long-lost love. Along the way, we learn that Carol has never known real love with a man. Back home, Kenetta is left to care for Mindy as her young charge totters on the edge of suicide.
Director Gregory Ward brings out the best in a killer cast: These women are marvelous together. Patty Mintz Figel gives her warmest, most layered and authentic performance yet as the tender but strong Eleanor. Karen Erickson, always a virtuoso, brings a sardonic wit to the role of Carol--you know this woman has suffered a lot and is willing to do anything to save her daughter. Denise Perry plays Kenetta as an unusually wise bimbo; she's got perfect comic timing and is beneficent beyond the call of duty. And Sara Fernandez-K. unfolds Mindy's tight, dark spirit like a rose exposed to the sun. It's an intense, intelligent performance.
All the action revolves around Mindy, the neediest of the bunch, who is having a very hard time healing from the effects of an accident in which a small child was killed. But each of the characters is a distinct personality, and they're all profoundly kind women willing to do the hard work of love. What saves Mindy from suicide are the same things that save each of them from loneliness: intuition and generous affection.
Playwright Dunn says he speaks from experience on the subject of suicide. The play is dedicated to a friend, Andy, who killed himself for want of love. In a recent telephone interview from his workplace at the New York Public Library, Dunn says the play's characters are composites of people he has known. Eleanor, for instance, is modeled after his own mother, who likewise loved a man she never married.
"I didn't want to touch suicide," says Dunn. "I've always seen the subject addressed in such cliches. But Andy wrote four suicide notes, one of which was to me. And in it he said, 'I'm checking out because I can't get my life started.' All of these four women are having trouble moving on, getting their lives started."
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In the play, Mindy makes some of her most important revelations while talking to an invisible, silent therapist. But while Dunn says there's something to be gained from therapy, it doesn't do much good for Mindy in the play. His friend Andy died because he always wanted but never found romantic love with a woman, says Dunn. So the playwright affirms in this play (as he has in others) the importance of another kind of therapy: maintaining relationships with family members and friends.
"I have some very close friends," says Dunn. "My wife and I have community. But Andy was a loner who would disappear for weeks at a time--no community, no family. These women come together in community. Kenetta is the one most in tune with the fact that she won't be here long. And her struggle is always being thwarted. But she picks herself back up and goes on."
In the end, Kenetta is as responsible for saving Mindy as are Eleanor and Carol. Dunn says a lot of his friends have told him they don't believe a woman like Eleanor would even let a woman like Kenetta into her home, much less leave her in charge of a dangerously depressed granddaughter. But he argues that intuition is not necessarily bound to the rules of logic, and his argument stands up under the hot lights of the stage. Love has its own logic here, and Mindy's redemption goes down easy.
The Deer and the Antelope Play, through October 26 at the Avenue Theatre, 2119 East 17th Avenue, 321-5925.