Theater Review: Listening to “Our Better Angels”

Is a romantic relationship with someone who is lovely — but mentally ill — worth the effort?

Our Better Angelswritten and directed by Paul Dervis. Set designed by Mike Papi. Costumes designed by Pauline Canelis. Sound designed by Drew Harmon. Produced by Storm Warnings Repertory Theatre at the Brick Store Performing Art Center, Main Street, Kennebunk, Maine, through November 12.

A publicity photo for "Our Better Angels." Photo: courtesy of Storm Warnings Theater

A publicity photo for “Our Better Angels.” Photo: courtesy of Storm Warnings Theatre

By David Greenham

Towards the end of Paul Dervis’ new play Our Better Angels, high end art gallery partners George Shapiro (Stephen McLaughlin) and Hal Newcombe (Jay Weston Jones) look through an art auction magazine and come across a photo of a drawing by Rodin. The corner of the picture is damaged. It’s a shame, observes Newcombe. When a masterpiece is slightly damaged it is essentially ruined — no one wants it. George Shapiro responds, quietly, “I would.” That moment is not just about art — it is a metaphor for the script’s meditation on mental illness. Is a romantic relationship with someone who is lovely — but mentally ill — worth the effort?

Dervis, a veteran playwright, drama teacher (and an Arts Fuse film critic), has created Storm Warnings Repertory Theatre to be a writing lab and Our Better Angels, a work in progress, is  the troupe’s latest offering. Performances are held in what serves as a meeting room, a stage in the back of the Brick Store Museum in Kennebunk, a coastal community that’s an hour north of Boston.

The play takes its title from Lincoln’s first inaugural address and focuses on a love affair between divorced art dealer George (Shapiro) and Jill Chambers (Elizabeth Freeman), a Julliard-trained jazz singer/pianist who makes a living as an insurance claims adjustor for New England Life and Casualty. Along the way, in addition to George’s partner Hal, we meet George’s ex-wife, Rita Shapiro (Rebecca Cole), and a mental health counselor (Shelly Elmer). Through a series of 32 scenes we see a relationship between George and Jill grow — initial passion deteriorates and we watch Hal and Rita struggle with the emotional fall-out.

Our Better Angels is not a particularly complicated story, though it manages to be a little foggy around its edges. I suspect that Jill’s mental illness is the dramatic focus, but it’s clear (at least to me) that nearly all the characters have their issues. George suffers from depression, as does his ex-wife Rita. Hal is a classic example of an enabler and apologist. Ironically, even the mental health advocate seems unable to effectively talk about mental illness. Dervis dances around these heavy topics with a light hand and there is bouncy dialogue. But his characters are not self-reflective types, and that is a drawback. Scenes are well developed and dramatically interesting, but at some point the play is not so much a meaningful journey than an (at times) meandering stroll through the lives of some screwed up New Englanders.

There is no such thing as too many venues for new play development, so Dervis deserves a great deal of credit for creating one right in his own community. He teaches drama at the alternative high school, The New School, as well as in some other locations. Yes, the performance space is quite limited, but he’s fighting the good fight; he’s created a troupe dedicated to helping to give voice to new works, especially his own.

Dervis has also resisted the urge (and expense?) of getting more seasoned actors by assembling a core company of local performers. Four of the five actors in the production have worked with the company before.

As George and Jill, Stephen McLaughlin and Elizabeth Freeman create sexual tension from the jump. That chemistry dissipates once the relationship becomes more serious. Eventually, Jill’s challenging emotional swings make you wonder why George hasn’t given up on what seems to be a case of untreated mental illness. By the time she misses a trip to Paris with George, we assume he’s finally going to be fed up. But we’d be wrong. What’s up with George and his obsession with this unstable woman? We are not supposed to care about the answer.

Rebecca Cole’s Rita gives a fine portrait of a woman who is hurting and lonely, even though she is the one who initiated the divorce. George is mostly unresponsive to her plight, but she keeps coming back for more. Why?

Weston Jones is energetic as Hal, the gallery partner. The figure has an endless supply of patience for his detached friend. He is also humorously curious about the relationship; he seems genuinely happy when Rita and Jill meet (briefly) towards the end of the play, despite the fact it is under circumstances that make the encounter incredibly uncomfortable. That moment, and Jones’ brief (and absurd) turn as a waiter at Denny’s are among the most compelling in the play — perhaps because they are unpredictable. In fact, the Denny’s waiter is the only one who gives George sensible, sane advice about Jill: “Jettison her, take a hike, bolt, run!,” he warns. George shrugs — was he listening?

The performers are not helped by technical limitations. The playing space is a rather plain meeting room with few opportunities for skillful lighting. There are lots of shadows and the actors often emit an unflattering yellowy glow. The costume choices often seem random, as is the sound. Mike Papi’s set design is also cramped. The stage is dominated by Jill’s apartment, which is pretty well filled by a baby grand piano. The only place to sit is the piano bench. Luckily (?) Jill spends most of her time lounging across the top of the piano, imitating a singer in a smoky 1930s nightclub. For some reason, George rarely takes off his overcoat. The set has been dictated by the drama’s premise that Jill is a Julliard graduate in jazz. Even so, I’m not sure it makes sense that there’s an 8-foot piano in a 10-foot room. At the end of the play she plays a little bit of piano and sings. But her act is not all that … musical. Is the jazz thing one of Jill’s lies? Or is it that the actor can’t deliver the called-for chanteuse goods? Who knows?

The quotation that Dervis includes in the program is an edited version of the last sentence in Lincoln’s great speech: “Though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.” I’d suggest that the two sentences that lead up to that passage show where Dervis might go in developing this play: “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies.” Doing more to explore how friends George, Hal, and Rita can help each other —  and even Jill  — might unlock more of Our Better Angels considerable dramatic potential.

David Greenham is an adjunct professor of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the Program Director for the Holocaust and Human Rights Center of Maine. He spent 14 years leading the Theater at Monmouth, and has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 25 years.

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