- The Washington Times - Friday, September 22, 2006

Do you remember the exact moment your childhood ended, when you moved from innocence to adult sensibilities? Canadian playwright Morris Panych does, and his play “Girl in the Goldfish Bowl” marks this wistful occasion with eccentric humor and unguarded honesty.

As demonstrated in Studio Theatre’s dotty staging of “Vigil” a few seasons back, Mr. Panych combines a dastardly sense of humor with bighearted insights into life’s most troubling passages. “Vigil” centered on aging relatives and the inconstancy of memory, while “Girl in the Goldfish Bowl” deals with an unhappy marriage as glimpsed through the eyes of the 10-year-old daughter who already has seen too much.

Under the guidance of Gregg Henry, MetroStage’s transcendent production has much in its favor, chiefly Susan Lynskey as the girl, Iris. Our first peep of her is executing the Australian crawl on the back of a well-worn sofa, swim mask firmly affixed to her face. Clearly, Iris is not your typical child.

Living in a dull small town in western Canada where the chief sources of excitement are the fish cannery and the Legion (the Canadian version of an American Legion post), Iris dwells firmly in her splendid imagination. Precociously aware and erudite, she lives to rankle the grown-ups in her life — her distracted mother, Sylvia (Kathleen Coons), mentally fragile father, Owen (Bobby Smith), and the household’s boozy boarder, Miss Rose (Susan Ross).

Among Iris’ diversions are believing she is a lost member of the royal family (the play takes place in 1962 — few would want to claim Windsor blood these days); practicing Buddhism, much to the horror of the nuns at her Catholic school; and fretting over imminent atomic attack and the relationship between Liz Taylor and Eddie Fisher. While her whole world is blowing up around her, Iris becomes fixated on the idea that Mr. Lawrence (Michael Russotto), a mysterious stranger, is the reincarnation of her dead goldfish, Amahl — named for the place he was purchased.

There is something aquatic and otherworldly about Mr. Lawrence. He seems to be having trouble getting his sea legs back after Iris pulls him out of the water, and the way he uses his mouth suggests he has spent a lot more time blowing bubbles than forming words. Miss Rose suspects he’s a Cold War spy or an escapee from the loony bin. But Iris sees him as having the soul of a poet and the ability to change the world — or at least keep her mother from fleeing their home.

Iris is a glorious creation, irritating and endearing in her efforts to maintain the status quo. With uncanny perception, she realizes that although the household is wildly dysfunctional, it is still a family unit and the only one she’s got. Miss Lynskey unforgettably plays both sides of Iris’ nature — the scarily smart child and the awkward young girl desperate for love and attention. She flings herself on the furniture with all the drama of pre-adolescence and uses her expressive voice to convey the flutelike cadences of youth without veering into preciousness.

Miss Ross is a pip as the blowzy factory worker with a weakness for highballs and the veterans down at the Legion who allow her to pretend it’s perpetually V-J Day. As Sylvia, Miss Coons is more of a cipher, but one suspects that could be attributed more to underwriting than acting ability. Mr. Smith plays Owen with stirring vulnerability, and despite Mr. Lawrence’s alarming proclivity for flashing Iris, Mr. Russotto ably captures the flailing movements and opaque despair of someone completely out of his element.

“Girl in the Goldfish Bowl” moves smoothly until its denouement, a messy affair involving accidental death and a cover-up straight out of “The Sopranos.” Everyone recovers rather quickly from the traumatic event, striking a false note. Wisely, however, the last scene belongs to Iris, now an adult, the light gone permanently out of her eyes as she remembers the last moment before unhappiness settled in like a light rain on her shoulders.

****

WHAT: “Girl in the Goldfish Bowl” by Morris Panych

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

WHEN: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays, 3 and 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Oct. 15.

TICKETS: $35 to $40

PHONE:

703/548-9044

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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