The play is "a ghost story about living without fear," but it's also about the elusive butterfly called memory.
It's hard to know how to characterize Richard Willett's play Random Harvest, now playing at the Bartell Theatre. It's described in the playbill as "a ghost story about living without fear," but it's also about the elusive butterfly called memory, as well as being a discourse on success and a meditation on that whole "Meaning of Life" thing. If that sounds like a mish-mash of ideas, you'll be sorry to hear that StageQ's production does little to clarify these decidedly muddy waters.
Director Greg Harris does what he can with a flimsy, unfocused script and a cast that seems (with one very notable exception) strangely disconnected from the material. Harris, who also designed the set, clearly believes in this story, but there are so many loose ends and disjointed ideas that it almost seems a waste of his talents and those of his actors.
The play is based on neither the classic 1942 film starring Greer Garson, nor the James Hilton novel that inspired that famous weepy. It does, however, revolve around the fate (in every meaning of the word) of Susan Peters, an actress in the movie who met a mysterious end. Unfortunately, a subplot involving a mother grieving over her son's suicide, coupled with the tedious domestic upheavals of a misanthropic playwright and his party-loving boyfriend, steer the story away from the central premise that redemption is never entirely beyond our grasp.
At the heart of the action is the aforementioned playwright Aaron (Erik Andrus), who is up for a Drama Desk Award. He apparently suffers from anhedonia; worse, he seems to want to inflict it on the rest of us. Andrus is saddled with a repetitive script, it's true, but that's no excuse for making Aaron an unsympathetic little whiner.
His codependent lover Jimmy (Edric Johnson) is a failed actor who, incomprehensibly, tolerates Aaron's sniveling; when he finally walks out, you can't help wondering what took him so long. (Willett directs some deliciously pithy barbs at actors. Thin-skinned thespians will undoubtedly take umbrage, but every single zinger hits the bull's-eye.)
As Peters, Liz Angle (one of Madison's most consistent performers) has some sterling moments, and Sarah Hoover, as the distraught mother, does her best while shackled with the unenviable task of speaking all of her lines into a telephone. Technically, the atmosphere is enhanced by effective lighting by Bryan Streich and Cameron J. Shimniok.
But the only time the action really comes to life is, ironically, when a dead woman hits the boards. As the deceased Greer Garson, Kathy Lynn Sliter is simply superb, weighing her timing with such apparent ease that she gives the other actors an object lesson in how to deliver a line. She plays the situation, not the emotion, and the grounded reality of her performance leaves everyone else in her dust.
The full house responded warmly on opening night, and there are certainly some enjoyable aspects to the production. Most of the seed in this particular harvest, however, falls on stony ground.