Review: “Bethany” (The Gift Theatre)

Hillary Clemens as Crystal in “Bethany”. Photo by Claire Demos

Show: Bethany

Company: The Gift Theatre Company

VenueThe Gift Theatre

Die Roll: 11

If you’ve never seen a Gift Theatre show, get thee to Jefferson Park! I’ve known of the company for a few years now, but I’d yet to see a show there prior to Sunday.

Wow. Wowwee-wow-wow-wow-wow.

Bethany is an unsettling  play. It starts with the arrival of Crystal (Hillary Clemens) into what looks like a normal, if bare-looking kitchen. She enters confidently from a sliding door, be-suited and with rollerbag in tow, flips on the lights and looks around. Must have just moved in, you think. Well…yes. And no. This is not Crystal’s house. Moreover, she’s not the only inhabitant; no sooner has she caught her breath than she’s met with the appearance of Gary (played with unsettling intensity by the outstanding Paul D’Addario), who has already claimed the house for his own.

Crystal has her reasons for needing to appear as the legal tenant of this house, one of many in a suburban housing development sitting empty during the Great Recession from which we’re just now barely recovering. Gary just wants a place to be on his own. They soon reach a compromise with the living arrangement, and then the  story really starts unspooling.

The hits just keep on coming for Crystal – she’s lost custody of her daughter because her own house was foreclosed upon. Her sales  job is in jeopardy at the local Saturn dealer – remember Saturn? Yeah, this is when they folded. She’s living on drive and carefully channeled determination. When Charlie (played to oogy perfection by James D. Farruggio), a motivational speaker, taps her to sell him one of the most expensive cars on the lot, she puts all of her considerable talents into selling him this car. Meanwhile, she has to convince Child Protective Services Officer Toni (Susaan Jamshidi) that her living situation is stable enough for her to regain custody of her daughter, survive the attentions of her nasty supervisor at the dealership, Shannon (Kirby O’Connell), and weather a life-upending encounter with Patricia (Mary Anne Bowman) that throws a hell of a monkey wrench in the works.

While the script has a few hiccups in story logic, the tremendous acting of this ensemble completely obscures any weaknesses. I’ve rarely seen such a well-cast show. And Hillary Clemens’ deft subtlety brings layers to a character that could devolve into a Lifetime Movie farce in clumsy hands. Instead, it’s easy to empathize with Crystal and her challenges.  Other reviewers have commented that the story might make a little more sense if Crystal was a recovering addict, or something more dramatic; I completely disagree. The terrifying aspect of Bethany, to me, is seeing someone who has skills and talent and drive trapped by  circumstances beyond her control and figuring out a way through the fear to the other side.

Clemens’ Crystal is so wonderfully transparent. The actor holds nothing back; there is absolutely no separation from the character. This requires skill, trust, and a whole lot of fearlessness; and it pays off in that no matter the decisions Crystal makes, the audience understands the price those decisions demand.

Paul D’Addario likewise inhabits Gary – a part that could devolve into a one-note schizo. Instead, we know that there is a whole lot more going on with Gary than is immediately apparent. It’s a trait shared by all of the cast – the complete incorporation of their characters. Let me tell you – it’s a beautiful thing to experience.

In tandem with individual performances, this production captures perfectly is tension. When the stakes are high, there’s an almost-visible cord stretched between the actors onstage. It pulls them together and pushes them apart. Especially in the scenes between Crystal and Gary and Crystal and Charlie, you can see the push and pull of their actions on each other.  Another thing this show gets right is silence. There are a few points where Crystal has to take time to process the preceding events, and Clemens brilliantly lives in those dialogue-free spans. So often plays are afraid of silence – actors and directors feel the need to fill in those spaces with sound and spectacle because no second must go wasted! But when you let the scene breathe, as is often the case in Bethany, you get so much more story. And I do love me some story.

I could write pages more on how outstanding this show is, but I’d rather you go and see it yourself. So get your tickets! Bethany continues through November 23rd at the Gift Theatre in Jefferson Park. Go nourish your soul with some damn fine theatre.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: When life throws wrenches into your plans, will you persevere?

RATING: d20- “One of the Best”