"The Square Root of Wonderful" has been labeled by critics as Carson McCullers' "failed play." When the show folded after only 45 performances, its failure sent McCullers on a downward spiral of depression and self-destruction from which she never recovered.
It must have taken extreme bravery on the part of Lori Park, Jen Smith and Jed Willard to resurrect. "The Square Root of Wonderful" for last weekend's run at the Loeb Experimental Theater. Unfortunately, little could be done to improve the flawed text, but the run was filled with successes on the part of the talented cast.
McCullers intended the play to be a tragi-comedy, but her attempt to blend genres results in an unsteady pace and mood, and leaves the audience unsure how to react. The play begins as a romantic comedy, featuring sappy dialogue between the lovers Mollie (Bess Wohl) and John (J.P. Anderson). Their pasts, however, are anything but sweet; John's wife left him, and Mollie married and divorced the same abusive husband twice. Then enter Mollie's ex's mother, Mother Lovejoy (Jill Weitzner), the Southern playwright's requisite aging Southern belle, and her dowdy daughter Loreena (Tanya Krohn). But even these entertaining albeit two-dimensional characters hide strange secrets.
Loreena has a morbid fantasy love-life. Mother, as it turns out, was abandoned by her husband with two young children. Along for the ride is Mollic's 12-year-old son, Paris (Chris Terrio), who struggles with the complexities of his twisted family life. McCullers does not handle the positive and negative elements of these characters with aplomb and the audience feels itself jerked from high to low with each scene.
Unsurprisingly, it is not long before Phillip, husband to Mollie and father to Paris, arrives on the scene, or, in this case, sneaks in the back. Phillip (Justin Levitt), a frustrated alcoholic writer who has returned home to win Mollie back for the third time, is a frightening and volatile figure. He loses control at the end of the second act when Mollie threatens to leave, and takes predictably drastic measures in the third act when she does.
The rest of the characters don't really react to Phillip's posturing or to the traumas of the third act; McCullers has them go right on being the pushy belle, the sniffling old maid, the smart aleck kid, and the love struck good guy, even as Phillip self-destructs. The imbalance of the heavy drama with the trite filler of the other characters is uneven, unsettling, and unsatisfactory.
McCullers has provided the characters with potent, image-filled dialogue.
When her players feel love, they describe "a light in your eyes...that makes the chair, the clock, the table look luminous." Unfortunately, as the audience loses its grasp on the plot, the lyrical beauty of the language only serves to highlight the play's schematic shortcomings.
The technical aspects of the production do little to assist the weak script. The stage is fully and flatly lit; the sets create neither an interesting space on the stage, nor a visual complement to the play's mood. The sound design, however, is very effective; the sparingly used piano music is appropriate but unobtrusive, and the subtle manner in which effects like a ticking clock are eased into the audience's consciousness is innovative and interesting.
The saving grace of this production is its cast. Terrio and Lisa Halliday give engaging performances as schoolchildren, capturing the posture, motions, and tone of early adolescents. Wietzner's Mother Lovejoy is consistently amusing. Though her movement on stage is unconvincingly agile for a woman of Mother's age, Weitzner's accent, gestures, and facial expressions communicates clearly the attitudes of this pushy ex-belle who's main concern is to seem "aristocratic." Krohn's Loreena is lovably nerdy and woebegone, and her characterization is strongest not when Loreena is speaking but when she is listening, nearly forgotten, as the others sort out their tangled lives. Wohl delicately and subtly evokes Mollie's transformation from vulnerability to strength and back again.
Levitt as Phillip Lovejoy gives the most intriguing performance of the evening. When Phillip is in control, he commands the undivided attention of the audience through his feline motions, tantalizingly deliberate diction, and tense pacing. Perhaps the weakest link in the cast is J.P. Anderson's portrayal of John, the love struck architect who wanders into this muddle of familial relationships. Anderson is tentative and unable to hold the stage beside Levitt or Wohl; he is capable of handling the romantic parts of the role but not the tenser moments. Yet Anderson is stronger in the scenes with Krohn and Terrio, when his quiet charm creates an air of intimacy in which the audience--for once--feels included.
The talented performances of the cast provide some focus for an audience left reeling by the plot's peaks and valleys. It's unfortunate that the directors and producer couldn't choose a script which would match up to the standards of the cast. McCullers, "master of melancholy," was unable to find the vital balance which makes tragicomedy work as a drama. As a result, "The Square Root of Wonderful" is little more than a leaky life raft which can barely hold this--or any--cast of talented actors out of the treacherous waters of dramatic confusion.