Themes of family and loss underscore the dark comedy of Reckless

Rachel, a housewife, is having what she characterizes as "one of my euphoria attacks," babbling ecstatically to her depressed husband, Tom, about snow, their two sons, festive television shows and how much she loves Christmas. He interrupts to tell her he's taken out a contract on her life. We never know exactly why, though perhaps her unstoppable chattiness provides a clue. Now that the killer is on his inexorable way, Tom is sorry and wants her to flee. A hasty plunge through the window in robe and slippers, and Rachel finds herself journeying through an America as surreal as Alice's Wonderland — though far more plastic and artificial, and peopled by all kinds of fragmented souls, from Lloyd and his deaf, paraplegic wife, Pootie, who take her in, to the sad young man who comes to her for help at the end of Reckless. Along the way, playwright Craig Lucas sends up everything from humanitarian work to more obvious targets, like game shows and therapy. His script features murder, drunkenness, lies, embezzlement and identity confusion, and it allows no Christmas celebration to escape unscathed.

Lucas wrote the magical, fanciful Prelude to a Kiss (a Pulitzer finalist), as well as the more overtly serious film Longtime Companion and the book for the lyrical Light in the Piazza. Reckless was first produced in the early 1980s and was revived in 1988 and 2004. It portrays the smart, fractured, cartoonish world we've encountered in the work of such playwrights as John Guare and David Lindsey Abaire, and also like their work, carries a thicker, darker subtext. We humans are all a mass of contradictions, Reckless suggests, lost and essentially alone, and no one can really understand anyone else, let alone him- or herself. Nonetheless, as the action progresses, chirpy Rachel, having realized the necessity of owning even those elements of her own history that are jagged and painful, somehow staggers toward self-knowledge.

I don't usually interpret plays by referring to the psychological life of the author — and Reckless has a great deal of fun with therapists who project their own preconceptions onto patients. But when I read in the program that Lucas had been left by his mother in a parked car on the day of his birth, and eight months later was adopted by a conservative couple who raised him in a world "where Jews, blacks, queers, socialists and drug users were all hidden from sight and reviled," everything I'd seen on the stage began to deepen for me. The death or absence of parents is a recurring theme in Reckless, starting with Rachel's entirely unintended abandonment of her children. Almost every character has both suffered and inflicted terrible loss; all of them have something to hide. And Rachel's journey through the years — always plunging forward into the unknown, always baffled by the lunacies she encounters, and yet always experiencing recursion and repetition so that every town she ends up in is called Springfield and no matter what's happening, it's always Christmas — feels like the bewildered exploration of a lost child, constantly searching for the place where she belongs. Lucas's personal story also helps explain the unexpectedly touching ending — either a reconciliation or the dream of one.

There's a sketch-comedy quality to some of the acting, and a lot of the roles invite this approach. Yet Kathleen M. Brady, playing caricaturish Trish, still manages a scowl that suggests a world of unwholesome feeling seething within, and Leslie O'Carroll makes us feel the sadness behind Pootie's absurd silence. Of course, everything rides on Julia Motyka, who plays Rachel, and she doesn't let us down. Motyka shows complexity and versatility. She can bound around the stage with an energy so manic that you want to strangle her yourself — never mind Tom's contract — but she also displays moments of unexpected intelligence and cunning, and ultimately evolves into someone calm and gentle whom you'd like to see a lot more of.

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Juliet Wittman is an investigative reporter and critic with a passion for theater, literature, social justice and food. She has reviewed theater for Westword for over a decade; for many years, she also reviewed memoirs for the Washington Post. She has won several journalism awards and published essays and short stories in literary magazines. Her novel, Stocker's Kitchen, can be obtained at select local bookstores and on Amazon.
Contact: Juliet Wittman