- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 13, 2001

''Trudy Blue" bores into one's soul with an intensity and humor that grab hold of the viewer, like the cancer that figures so centrally to the protagonist in this Studio Theatre production.

Playwright Marsha Norman ("'Night Mother") reworked the play to focus more on the lead character, Ginger Andrews, and her quest for living rather than dying. Yet that only works to a point: You'll probably leave the theater having laughed a lot, but you won't be whistling a happy tune.

Played with endearing spunk by Jane Beard, Ginger is a successful New York City writer who pens her life through the adventures of her popular character, Trudy Blue. Miss Beard effectively conveys a loving woman who desperately wants to be honest, but whose personality seems to reflect someone whose iron grip on life is coursing slowly toward hanging by her fingernails. Even when she's meditating, her curled thumb and forefinger are pressed tightly together.

Set designer James Kronzer puts Ginger's laptop upfront so we can't miss this woman's purpose in life, as well as her vehicle for being real with the world. I liked the sliding door arrangement in the background, which enabled the set to change economically and also have characters pop out at moments that resembled a screwball comedy.

The rest of the set fleshes out a New York brownstone with the obligatory bed rolling out when necessary. Yet interestingly, the bed is best used by Ginger's husband, Don, who lounges there when working his checkbook, reflecting a life lived casually without introspection.

Ginger suffers from sort of a depression, and we admire her willingness to do anything to be happy, whether it's simple meditation or expensive hypnotherapy.

Vulnerable Ginger is married to a man with whom she hardly sleeps, much less communicates. (Besides, he's a yeller.) She has a brassy, savvy 13-year-old daughter (Kelsey Keel) who needs more quality time than just a nightly hug and peck at bedtime. (Of course, Mom's throwing out the dead rats that daughter Beth used for a science project doesn't help a bit.)

On top of all of this, Ginger has two months to live. What keeps Ginger going is a peculiar, potentially dangerous relationship with Trudy Blue, who practically hovers over the writer throughout the production. Trudy is tall and slim with big brown eyes and a husky voice. Katie Barrett plays her with wise-guy chutzpah. She dresses like a chanteuse and commands the stage as forcefully as she commands Ginger's life.

We're never really sure what Trudy gets out of this relationship with her creator — either it's sincere camaraderie or a fiendish delight in taunting Ginger's inner self. Either way, the chemistry between Miss Beard and Miss Barrett is clearly crucial to "Trudy Blue." There are times when their sisterly embraces further underscore that both women melt into one, a concrete force with which to be reckoned.

Director J.R. Sullivan starts off with a deceptively serene style that turns frenetic, an adequate depiction of Ginger's psyche as her life seems to unravel in front of us. The play has no intermission, precisely to keep the momentum of frustration and an intensity level that never wanes. It feels like a 90-minute roller coaster.

Both Mr. Sullivan and Miss Norman carefully present characters whose reality subtly emerges from the stereotypes Ginger has created at the beginning. Mr. Sullivan's casting works flawlessly, particularly since this is a comic piece set against the background of serious proportions.

The characters portray themselves from Ginger's fearful point of view and then as much more based in reality.

Andrew May plays the thankless role of Ginger's husband, who's more concerned about the checkbook — Ginger has seen 17 doctors in a month, he bellows throughout the production — than what's bothering his poor wife. He screams when he says he's not. He does push-ups and he swaggers.

Yet in his performance remains a certain vulnerability, especially in his silence when he must confront his wife's illness. In the alternate role of James, Ginger's affair partner, Mr. May exhibits sensitivity and callousness with effective ease. Ginger seeks refuge in this man, a traveling musician, but it turns out that he's just another man.

Sue, played gleefully by Denise Diggs, flutters in and out as Ginger's editor. (She's always looking for the movie angle, wanting Ginger to put in characters that Harrison Ford could play.) I liked her seeming facetiousness that melted into genuine concern when faced with Ginger's plight. Lord, what fools these mortals seem to be.

My favorite comic performance came from Ronobir Lahiri, who portrayed the pulmonary doctor with annoyingly giddy glee. ("Go home and rest," he says to Ginger after taking some tests. "If it's cancer, it'll be there in three weeks.") Mr. Lahiri also scores in his frequent appearances as the hectoring swami, supervising Ginger's frantic moments of meditation. (The poor woman can't even rid her thoughts when she's supposed to be relaxing.) The swami is indeed just another intrusion into the protagonist's life.

Kelsey is a find as Ginger's young daughter. She plays the whining girl yet also displays extraordinary feeling for her mother's plight.

Faith Potts, dressed in pearls and tasteful business suit, nails Ginger's mother, Annie. She may not have been the best mother, but her sharp wit seems to enable her to have all the right answers.

"Trudy Blue" has no clear-cut answers, but it does spark some honest questions about death and how a real mortal would face it.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: "Trudy Blue"WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday, 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday and 7 p.m. SundayWHERE: Studio Theatre, 1333 P St. NWTICKETS: $23.50 to $39.50PHONE: 202/332-3300

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