With hurricane season upon us, the intriguing production of Agnes appears timely, ably directed by Jenna Worsham at 59E59 Theaters.
Four New York City 20-somethings burrow in their apartment and into each other while weathering the titular hurricane. Invited by zany Ronan to crash with former friends since her “A” evacuation zone leaves her homeless for the night, Anna joins the reunion/party, where hidden emotions and jealousies collide, and confrontations reveal secrets aching for revelation.
As the characters reformulate their mutual relationships, they develop new relationships with themselves too. Though satisfying resolutions never come easily, the process of getting there presents itself. And like all storms, eventually the hurricanes within and without dissolve, with clearer weather ahead.
The 90-minute one-act opens after dynamic, rocking music subsides. Charlie enters a cluttered, homely, shared apartment. John Edgar Barker portrays the emotionally complex and Asperger-challenged Charlie with sustained believability. His performance throughout is well-executed, thoughtful, and finely tuned.
Charlie carefully pulls out a box from the shelf above the bed, flips through the audio tapes inside and selects one. As he listens to “Subject 37, Lorraine,” the taped interview soothes him. Stepping into the light as the tape plays, “Lorraine” (Claire Siebers) relates her experiences in a physical storm which symbolically aligns with her personal troubles. Though we don’t realize it yet, one of McMullen’s themes is unwinding as, inevitably, these quirky individuals fall over each other as they struggle with their own internal hurricanes.
Upon seeing that Charlie has returned from parts unknown, his younger sister June ferociously welcomes him back. As June, Laura Ramadei adheres with precision to apt emotional modulations and delivers an overall spot-on, nuanced performance. Though June remains on tenterhooks questioning Charlie’s whereabouts, her expressions of mild outrage reveal heavy concern. Obviously, she has cast herself as his caretaker, a role Charlie’s older self chafes at.
Nevertheless, Charlie’s vacant, aloof responses to her and rebuffs of physical affection indicate familiar ground. Their relationship is strained. The pull and twists of sibling love combined with intense overprotectiveness grates on Charlie. Finally, we learn through McMullen’s quippy, well-crafted dialogue that Charlie’s Asperger’s locks him away from normal behavior, social interactions, and intimacy. Indeed, the syndrome predisposes him from easily relating to others, including sister June. By degrees the playwright, director, and excellent ensemble reveal the rationality of June’s behavior toward her brother. Yet we also realize that her dependence on being the nurturer stifles both of their individuality and autonomy. Where will their struggle end?
This conflict and other issues explode in the presence of Anna, June’s former lover. Delightfully portrayed by Claire Siebers, Anna lures all around her, with moment-to-moment emotional content that shines from within, outward. As Anna seduces us and the others, June’s current lover, the feisty Elle (Mykal Monroe), becomes outraged fearing she’ll lose June. As the brilliant medical student, Monroe is Ramadei’s foil. Their interactions ring with authenticity.
Threatened by Anna’s beauty, seductiveness, and joy, Elle confronts June. When June ameliorates her rage with affection and sex, Elle succumbs. The storm subsides momentarily. But dark clouds still fly overhead, for June will most likely not move to another state with Elle as Elle completes her studies. Anna, who has just moved near them, threatens the end of June’s and Elle’s relationship if June stays in New York.
The conflict climaxes when Charlie expresses his attraction to Anna. Intriguingly, the ancient story of experienced lover shepherding the inexperienced acolyte unfolds. Charlie asks her for help in expressing his loving emotions for her sexually. Will she rebuff one who makes his need and innocence so sweet, so insistent? What of her former relationship with June and perception of herself? How will Charlie feel if she rejects him, or loves him then leaves him?
The situation becomes the powderkeg that blows open June’s underlying feelings about her relationships with Charlie, Elle, Anna, and herself. It explodes Charlie’s relationship with June and sets it on a different course. Anna is the catalyst and change agent. Blown back into their lives via the necessity of finding a haven (this symbolism thrums), she adds her unique complexity to their human dynamic. However, being with them throws open the doors to the random. Like the random effects of the weather, she may break, and the relationships between and among the individuals may be destroyed. Only empathy and communication will salve the wounds.
Ironically, Charlie who yearns for meaningful connection does communicate with Anna. But June waits in the wings seemingly without the understanding or the ability to “let her older brother grow up on his own.” In a confusing flood of emotions, Anna is evicted from June’s safe haven into Hurricane Agnes the next day. Though the air clears, it is time to survey the damage. Indeed, the situation among June, Elle, and Charlie will never be the same.
As for Ronan, who attempts to negotiate his own breakup with his wife, that remains for the sunshine. Hiram Delgado’s Ronan effervesces with vibrancy and pathos. As the peacemaker who cannot attain peace with his own wife, he introduces the catalyst (Anna). However, he cannot halt the chain of events. Nevertheless, his humor steers the group and provides some measure of riotous sanity. Delgado’s is a stand-up performance.
The play’s centerpiece message is that Charlie’s condition represents in exaggerated form the human condition. Especially in these times, one of humanity’s failures centers on crippled relationships and the lack of meaningful connections. With inflexibility comes the inability to stand in another’s shoes or perceive the sanctity of another’s viewpoint. The brilliant yet socially “backward” Charlie recognizes these failings within himself and seeks to correct them. The others only reflect their incapacity to empathize with those closest to them. The hard truth of communication necessitates that one listen and put aside one’s own needs. Charlie appears to be the only one in Agnes who fervently tries. And through their fears, he attempts to lead his sister to understand.
Ironically too, Charlie symbolizes the best of humanity. Indeed, he does this despite his stilted, abrupt, truth-blurting observations (many of them humorous). Despite his social inadequacies, he is brutally aware of himself. Though he doesn’t readily show emotional connection and appears without emotional tenor, his awareness of others is acute. Finally, we note the importance of openness and empathetic listening.
In this tour-de-force, which is sometimes humorous, sometimes spellbindingly real, Worsham and the cast riffing on McMullen’s deft writing remind us of underestimated human verities. It is a pleasant irony that the character who appears most socially dysfunctional recognizes and explores the greatest of human truths.
Not to give too much away, do look for thematic connections with the characters Charlie interviews. The metaphors and symbolism are particularly apt. Agnes is a must-see.
Kudos to the design team: Angelica Borrero (sets), Cheyenne Sykes (lighting), Daniel Melnick (sound), and Nicole Slaven (costumes). Agnes runs at 59E59 Theaters until 29 September. Visit the website for tickets.
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