- The Washington Times - Friday, May 16, 2003

Successful novelist Anne Hirsch (Helen Hedman) thinks big — beyond freedom and bliss. Her mind extends far past the bony confines of her skull, stretching into realms where fantasy and reality mingle freely and where life and death are not fixed, but fluid, states.

And that’s the problem. In playwright David Gow’s “Bea’s Niece,” Anne’s prairie of a mind has landed her in the psych ward, in a deep state of depression and hallucinatory psychosis over her husband’s death the previous year.

Anne feels guilty about Bill’s (Tom Kearney) demise, because she was too busy writing brilliant novels and neglecting her helpmate spouse. Only a male playwright with a misogynist agenda could come up with that — poor Anne, writing 15 hours a day and heeding the muse when she could have been more attentive to her whiny and passive-aggressive husband. What woman wouldn’t want to flee to the typewriter?

For now, however, Anne is under the care of brisk-mannered Dr. Beth Otis (Michelle Shupe), whom she fears is going to cram her thoughts back into her head.

For much of the play’s action, Anne prefers that her mind roam. Who wouldn’t, given the fireball charm of her most vivid hallucination: her Aunt Bea (Susan Ross), a vampy senior citizen who sassily clomps around the hospital room in fuschia-patterned high heels, toreador pants and a clingy leopard-print sweater. “Have you considered a drinking cure?” she suggests to Anne, reaching for the silver flask tucked into her festive straw bag.

Aunt Bea is a broad in the classic sense, played by Miss Ross with style and moxie as a fruity hybrid of Auntie Mame, Elaine Stritch and Lauren Bacall. Waving her cigarette for emphasis, Aunt Bea instructs her fragile niece in the art of a lady’s needs — which include having 26 ounces of good scotch on hand at all times, a set of Willow Ware china, a “wee bit” of opium in a syringe for those really bad days, and a loaded revolver in case a husband tries to stray or you need to shoot a moose.

One of the magical highlights of “Bea’s Niece” is Aunt Bea’s meticulous and blithely funny recounting of how she shot a moose one night in her bra and panties (because moose blood, she explains, is thicker than molasses and she didn’t want to ruin her nice house dress) for the sane and simple reasons that he was standing in her garden eating all the lettuce and that she and her family were starved for meat.

Anne’s hospital room is also visited by the late, lamented Bill, who in the beginning pops up to lay a guilt trip on his wife before vanishing back into the shadowy vale. So Anne was the genius breadwinner in the family. Get over it, Bill.

Before things start to unravel in the second act, however, Bill gets his revelatory scene. Anne’s mind drifts back to Bill’s last day as he writhed in agony from lung cancer. She tries to temper his suffering by reciting the Jewish marriage ceremony and images from the cabala. As she chants over and over the powerful words along with her dying husband, their mingled grief, pain, love and overwhelming tenderness for each other builds to a shuddering crescendo. Now that’s closure.

Would that the entire play had such fine emotion and wholeness. Billed as a “psychological mystery,” “Bea’s Niece” lacks the intellectual inquiry and rigor of the play “Equus” or the tragic woundedness of the movie “A Beautiful Mind.” Dr. Otis speaks of trying unconventional and harsh treatments on Anne, but most of that therapy must have taken place off-stage because the audience never sees any evidence of it aside from the good doctor stalking around the room in a lab coat and sensible shoes.

She talks about wanting to get inside Anne’s mind to help her distinguish between reality and delusion, but she never really does. Then, in the second act, Anne miraculously starts getting well, and one of the last images is of her sitting happily at the typewriter, tap-tapping about her decision to change Aunt Bea from a hallucination into a character in her new novel.

What? How did that happen? By not seeing the process by which Anne returns to sanity, the audience feels cheated. There is a magical, surreal quality to “Bea’s Niece,” especially in the eccentric treatment of Anne’s fantasies, but to drop a pat ending out of nowhere seems a cheap disservice to the characters.

Still, “Bea’s Niece” has much to offer — starting with a top-notch ensemble under the direction of Los Angeles hot shot Jessica Kubzansky, who stages the play with a crisp, impassioned theatricality that never rings false.

Miss Kubzansky takes invigorating chances in a play about mental illness, infusing the production with almost spoofy, surreal sound effects and moments of “magic” (or craziness, depending on your point of view) that include a bureau that shoots lightning out of its opened drawers and can produce cups of tea and ginger snaps upon command.

Kudos also to costumer Jan Kemper, who came up with the kooky and elegant ensembles sported by Aunt Bea, and to Jeremy Pivnick for the strange, Magritte-type lighting effects.

Miss Ross as the inimitable Aunt Bea is reason enough to see “Bea’s Niece,” but she also does a nifty turn as a garrulous rabbi with a borscht belt delivery style who leads Anne back to her faith. Miss Hedman portrays with a savage grace the tortured mind and enduring intelligence of Anne — a performance so physical you actually feel as though you are watching tumbling thoughts.

For all its shortcomings, “Bea’s Niece” does make you think about the nature of creative imagination and insanity, whether they are really that far apart or merely too close for comfort.

**1/2

WHAT: “Bea’s Niece” by David Gow

WHERE: MetroStage, 1201 N. Royal St., Alexandria

WHEN: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through June 8

TICKETS: $30-$35

PHONE: 703/218-6500

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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