Often the most relatable characters are also the most ordinary ones, and as such we can all relate to Wanda Mae Pretty. Her seemingly banal exterior belies an inner imaginitive life, in which the real and the unreal coexist, and her struggle with these opposites drives the plot of David Valdes Greenwood’s new play, “Wandaleria,” directed by Brett Marks and showing at the Boston Playwrights’ Theatre from Jan. 26 to Feb. 11. Although “Wandaleria” isn’t quite as novel as one might hope, this is overcome by fantastic performances by the cast.
One of the overarching tropes of “Wandaleria” is the monotony of suburbia and its residents. The three central characters represent a suburban family: Wanda (Kate deLima) is overwhelmingly ordinary—she is a middle-aged, overweight, and lazy woman—but to us, she is a reflection of ourselves. As her character develops, it becomes clear that her idiosyncratic habits and fears are typical of people everywhere. Within the first few scenes of the play, we see that many of Wanda’s characteristics—her obsession with dreams, her inability to act on them, her distaste for her true self—are more universal than suburban.
Wanda’s roommate Betsy (Shelley Brown) serves as a mother figure to both Wanda and Wanda’s niece Ivy (Caitlyn Conley).
When Rocky (Peter Brown), an inmate who is Wanda’s longtime pen pal, shows up on their doorstep one snowy night, Betsy is livid with anger, and this disagreement serves as the primary conflict of the play.
Ivy also plays her role as a surrogate sister to Wanda in this makeshift family—she remains supportive of Wanda even though the two couldn’t be any more different.
All three members of the fictitious family are fundamentally dissatisfied with life, but for their own reasons: Betsy silently copes with a loss of a loved one, Wanda’s fantasies become an almost agoraphobic tendency that she uses to escape from realities of everyday life that she is unable to face, and Ivy struggles with a premature marriage and repressed memories. All three women ultimately want excitement from life but are trapped in a small, unnamed town, in which even the road they live on has a generically bland name: Hazelnut Street. At one rousing point in the play, the three characters reveal their innermost secrets to the audience simultaneously and make a collective commentary on suburbia, culminating in Ivy’s distressed question, “How do you know when your life is enough?” followed by a bitterly expectant silence.
Although trite, the play’s theme of suburban dissatisfaction is brought to life by both the actors and the writing. One of the most unusual aspects of the performance is the interaction between reality—what is really happening—and fantasy—what is occurring in Wanda’s imagination. Because these scenes are all acted out on the same set, the play requires immediate clarity of the distinction between these scenes as well as a sense of continuity among them. On the small but cozy set at Boston Playwrights’ Theatre, the cast effectively handles this balance, allowing the message and themes of the play to come clearly to the audience. A particularly telling example of such an exchange occurs when Wanda shows Ivy the blouse she has bought; at first, Ivy’s reaction is overwhelmingly positive, but then the lighting changes and the characters resume their original positions as we realize that the previous exchange had been a figment of Wanda’s hopeful imagination.
The performance is impressive in that the fantasies are portrayed in the same scene as the realities. By doing this, Marks creates a juxtaposition between the two scenarios that is both effective and immediate. Several times throughout the work, Wanda’s world freezes as the audience focuses on Rocky. This element of “Wandaleria” could easily have made the play hard to follow, but the transitions between scenes are quick and fluid, and the sound and lighting is well thought out and coordinated with the action on stage; clearly, no detail was overlooked in the staging of this performance.
Certainly, the theme of mundane suburbia and the resulting dissatisfaction with life is not a new one, and admittedly, the constant emphasis on the drudgery of suburban life at times makes seeing “Wandaleria” feel like listening to an Arcade Fire album, but the play redeems itself by bringing innovative playwriting and effective acting to its audience. Although the show is flawed, you will surely be charmed by the lovable characters that bring “Wandaleria” to life.