- The Washington Times - Friday, January 21, 2005

Michelle Shupe’s galvanizing performance in the title role of “The Tattooed Girl” transforms this intellectually stodgy drama into a crushing, emotional experience. Joyce Carol Oates’ talky adaptation of her 2003 novel takes a while to ignite and is not yet completely satisfying on a dramaturgical level, but Miss Shupe is more than enough reason to catch Theater J’s world-premiere production, directed by John Vreeke.

Mr. Vreeke has a way with wordy plays, as demonstrated by his gifted turns with Tony Kushner’s “Homebody/Kabul” and a spoken-word adaptation of D.H. Lawrence’s “Lady Chatterley’s Lover.” He has his work cut out for him with “The Tattooed Girl,” which runs slightly more than two hours but, because of its blustery torrents of professorial discourse, seems much longer.

The intellect forming the “mind” of the play is Joshua Seigl (Michael Russotto), the author of a famous novel about the Holocaust written when he was in his 20s. Years later, Joshua has become reclusive and odd, holed up in a big house — rendered by Dan Conway as a book-filled fortress — with only a raging case of writer’s block to keep him company.

Recently diagnosed with a degenerative nerve disease, Joshua decides he needs an assistant. A wryly funny sequence details the interview process as a parade of candidates descends on Joshua’s study (all played with shape-shifting grace by Karl Miller), each more pretentious or nerdily desperate than the one before.

In a college bookstore, he chances upon Alma Busch (Miss Shupe), who seems straight out of “Deliverance” country. Crude, rural and in thrall to a nasty crystal meth habit, Alma seems an unusual choice for Joshua’s rarefied world. Yet he sees something in this strangely tattooed, pebble-brained girl and hires her.

Miss Oates does not tell us much about Alma, hinting that the tattoos scrawled over her neck and arms are the result of a bad drug deal. The halting speech and body curled into itself like a kicked dog’s suggest a woman who has been mistreated and discarded pretty much since birth. As the damaged heart of the play, she attracts abusers, in this case a low-life waiter named Dmitri (Christopher Browne), a pimp, drug dealer and rabid racist all rolled into one.

Joshua becomes enchanted by Alma’s combination of ignorance and grit, and her presence sparks a creative resurgence as he decides to write the sequel to his great Holocaust novel, a futuristic work in which people have no memory of history, leaving him to ponder, “What are their souls like?” However, Joshua is unaware of Alma’s feral, deep-seated anti-Semitism, which has her believing that “Jews caused 9/11” and that the Holocaust never happened.

Joshua is the first person in Alma’s life who treats her with respect. In his employ, she begins to see her worth. Alma’s ascent out of the pit of violence and manipulation is glorious to behold. Miss Shupe gives us a harrowing portrait of a young woman who goes from victim to someone clumsily beginning to stand up for herself.

You wish the rest of the play were as richly satisfying as Miss Shupe’s performance. Miss Oates goes for a more hopeful ending than in the novel, but it seems pat and contrived. Though Mr. Russotto deftly captures the ivory-tower imperiousness of a literary giant, his Joshua never reaches the emotional complexities of the character of Alma.

Cam Magee is wasted in the one-note role of Joshua’s histrionic sister, Jetimah. Mr. Browne, on the other hand, makes the most of the one-track evil of Dmitri.

“The Tattooed Girl” pontificates about Holocaust deniers, bigotry and ethnic hatred, but that is not what affects you in this play. Instead, you are moved by Alma’s journey from dark suspicion to a tentative sense of trust.

***

WHAT: “The Tattooed Girl,” by Joyce Carol Oates

WHERE: Theater J, D.C. Jewish Community Center, 1529 16th St. NW

WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 7:30 p.m. Sundays

TICKETS: $10 to $36

PHONE: 800/494-8497

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