by Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
It’s tempting to dismiss Susan Glaspell’s play, “The Verge,” as dated, given its one-year shy of its centenary. However, Glaspell was a powerhouse in her day and has ascended to dramatic legend. She was only the second woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and she cofounded the Provincetown Players, widely considered to be America’s first theatre company. Her 1916 play, “Trifles” traces a woman accused of murdering her husband and was based on a journalism assignment Glaspell covered. “Trifles” always resonated at the college-level, a testimony to Glaspell’s timelessness.
“The Verge” is not quite as accessible, so it’s a brave choice by the University of Pittsburgh Stages. By 1921, Glaspell was detaching from realism and flirting with dawning expressionism. Where this falls apart is not in the play, but in the production. The weakest link is actress Emily Peifer. Her portrayal of protagonist and botanist Claire Archer embodies the oft-used corporate expression “building the plane while flying it.” This strategy can prove effective in fast-paced business settings, but it’s less successful in the dramatic arts where having a point of view on your character is critical. Peifer never finds Claire as she battles mental health issues, and director Andrea Gunoe leaves her scrambling in the cinders. Peifer attacks her lines with a mad, headlong rush, occasionally punctuated by a deer in the headlights gaze to the galaxies. Nuance is sacrificed to histrionics.
Luckily, there are more roots to this botanical drama than the main character. The play takes place in Claire’s greenhouse. Sound designers Nick DePinto and Parag S. Gohel create an enchanting use of onstage sound effects that hearken back to popular radio dramas of the 1920s. Paper on a roller simulates the wind, and each mention of Claire’s botanical hybrid piece de resistance – the scintillatingly named Breath of Life – is accompanied by an enchanting, fairy-like windchime. Gunoe thoughtfully positions the sound effects team downstage right to minimize intrusiveness while providing real-time optics into the effects. Breath of Life may be hidden for most of the play (and looks a bit flaccid and underwhelming when it is revealed), but the windchimes build anticipation and enhance the play’s ethereal, otherworldly quality.
Sound effects acutely bleed into the physical. Howling winter winds accompany each forceful opening of the greenhouse’s iron-rimmed door on Kami Beckford’s magnificently towering set reminiscent of a slightly ominous Phipps Conservatory. The door always seems most difficult for Claire’s husband to open and close, and you’re never sure if it’s inconsistent direction or correlation to the opener’s status in Claire’s heart.
Despite (or because of?) her neurotic nature, the beautiful Claire is loved and admired by three men who all want to save her in their own ways. Gunoe turns the trifecta of sexual tension into a quartet with an androgynously well-cast greenhouse caretaker, Anna (Cadence Reid). Yet Claire is living proof that admiration can’t save one’s sanity. She both relishes and is repulsed by the male gazes cast upon her as none of them satisfy, even with the heady cocktail of husband, lover and best friend under the same greenhouse roof.
Claire’s husband, Harry (Cal Behr), is an aviator. She’s embittered that his daredevil nature is delimited to the skies, but she also clearly jumped into this second marriage without taking the time to validate her assumptions. The mustachioed Behr is reminiscent of Inspector Clouseau; he’s clueless and well-meaning, but his good intentions make him sympathetic. He’s a steadying course, which the volatile and often churlish Claire bucks against. From the outset, Claire flaunts her extramarital relationship with artist Dick Demming (Jason Goldstein). Goldstein finds the tension between the exultant masculine pride of conquest and exuding discomfort with Claire’s lack of subtlety.
Tom (Dennis Sen) is Claire’s best friend, and Sen wields his facial expressions with wonderful nuance. He finds an appropriately bemused sensibility towards his fellow challengers who know Claire in the bedroom, while only he seems to be able to calm her. However, Tom’s also the model of lovelorn confidante, torn between the desire for Claire’s continued friendship while coveting the headiness of her romantic affections. At one point, Claire’s hand drops from Tom’s shoulder. He reaches back with a palpable anguish to rest his hand on that spot, his own attempt to capture the Breath of Life that ultimately eludes us all.
The University of Pittsburgh’s production of “The Verge” plays through February 16th at the Charity Randall Theatre inside Foster Memorial, 4301 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA 15213. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.