I know why I had such difficulty getting into the fun of things last Saturday night, as dizzy Babe Magrath fought off that inconvenient manslaughter charge—just one of those things you're going to have to expect when you go around shooting your husband in the stomach—in playwright Beth Henley's Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, Crimes of the Heart. The night before, I saw the real thing. Or something a lot closer to it, at any rate.
On a stage at N.C. Central University during the Hidden Voices' production of Rewind, an actor portrays Regina Walters—a real person, as opposed to the weightless wonderwaif director John Feltch crafts with actor Lesley Shires at Playmakers Rep—unwisely accepting a plea agreement in which she shares responsibility for a murder she says she didn't commit. The moment changes her life as much as all that has come in it before.
Two women, from two Southern towns. Two lives that have seen abuse: Babe's from an unsympathetic spouse, Walters' from parents and others. Two crimes (actually, a lot more than that, on both sides), and two consequences that couldn't be much further apart. These begin to characterize two works whose simultaneous appearance on the regional stage constitutes something of a critique of one another.
To be sure, both are critically vulnerable. But since one of these works—Rewind—is overtly biographical, a note is needed here before we go further. I still reject Arlene Croce's infamous assertion that what she terms "victim art" is, by definition, lifted beyond the realm of critical commentary. But to be clear, our purpose here is not to sit in judgment on the life of Regina Walters. That has already been done, in a series of court appearances and parole proceedings over the past 14 years. Indeed, Rewind itself appears to comprise a series of striking self-assessments—and self-judgments—about its subject.
A theater critic can, however, comment usefully on the forms those revelations take on stage, in the qualities and structure of the script Lynden Harris wrote in interviews with her subject, and on Kathryn Hunter Williams' direction of actors Hope Hynes Love and Jeri Lynn Schulke in the enactment of that text.
If the frankness of Harris' script is commendable, even more so is its avoidance of the "big house" clichés prison literature is riddled with. "If you liked junior high, you're going to love prison," her protagonist jibes at one point, neatly puncturing the near-Nietzschean myths of hardness that pop culture has long associated with forced confinement: "Prison makes you a child again, in all the worst ways," she ultimately concludes.
Though critics sometimes compare a compelling performance to "watching a car crash in slow motion," in this production, we frequently come closer to experiencing the opposite. Too often, Rewind plays like a life lived in fast forward instead—on a hard disk that can't seem to stop skipping among a number of files. In part, this is due to the speed of Love's and Schulke's line delivery: By the fifth "too fast" in my notes on Saturday night, the point had been duly made.
But Harris' script contributes to this sense as well. There's a nagging sense that, in its bid to make sense of and transmit the "whole story" in one evening—actually, a little over one hour—Rewind is forcing too much information on its audience, too quickly. It likely would be challenging to receive data this compressed, even if the narrative related were totally linear. But Rewind's tale skips all over the place—in space, in time—without warning. No doubt Harris is attempting to symbolize and restitch the fabric of a life torn to shreds. But with so little connective logic in places, her character seems adrift in time and space, almost a figure from the speculative fiction of Vonnegut at points than a more conventional biographical work.
At its root, biography attempts to do one thing: to actively find coherence in the disparate events of a life. Rewind, with all of its skipping about the work, sometimes places its narrative dots too far apart. Then it doesn't always go back to connect them. Even if it did, we acknowledge no such sense of a life is ever complete. It is particularly telling that, even now, the pivotal moments of the crime that sent Walters to prison for 11 years are related in a distinctly dissociative manner. The rest of the episode is remembered only as 2 1/2 hours of white noise. Even at this date, recalled trauma sends the sense-making mechanisms off-line.
Most of us would likely flinch—at the least—before consenting to put the darkest hours of our lives on stage. The singular courage of this public accounting is clear from the outset. But Rewind ultimately tries too hard to do too much, and because it does, it accomplishes less.
Has Beth Henley's dark, Southern comedy, which came to prominence during the Carter administration, aged as poorly as it seems in this Playmakers production? Possibly so. We now note the incredible—and painfully obvious—convenience of Babe's lawyer being a sworn political enemy to her husband, a first-rate legal mind (in Hazelhurst, Miss., of all places) and more than mildly in love with her (from afar) in the same scene. One-stop plotting, so to speak.
The objection of her sister, Meg (Janie Brookshire), upon learning her former beau has married a Yankee, has a different, hollower ring now than it did 30 years ago. And though busybody relatives are still with us, of course, if they seemed as irrelevant as this Chick (Annie Meisels), their presence likely wouldn't be tolerated as long as hers is.
But the occasional shrillness of the Magrath sisters' unlikely reunion doesn't fully convey the dysfunctional realities that split this family in the first place. Southern literary characters must have a past; unfortunately, the one that Babe, Meg and Lenny (Regan Thompson) share in this production still seems a bit hypothetical.