Talkin’ Broadway Regional News & Reviews: BOSTON

Regional Reviews by Nancy Grossman

Merrimack Repertory Theatre

William S. Burroughs, a major figure of the Beat Generation, famously stated, ” … there are no coincidences and there are no accidents.” After attending the regional premiere of The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead at the Merrimack Repertory Theatre in Lowell, it is difficult to subscribe to the Burroughs philosophy while trying to make sense of what happens in the lives of seven disparate characters in Robert Hewett’s play. It seems unlikely that the actions of a suburban housewife could set in motion a chain of events that would profoundly impact six other people, four of whom are unknown to her, but the playwright is a convincing storyteller and master welder, forging a sturdy chain that binds them all together in a compelling theatrical experience.

Award-winning actress Karen MacDonald is the linchpin of this well-crafted production directed by Obie Award-winning Director Melia Bensussen. MacDonald is the sole performer, delivering eight monologues by seven characters, and she never leaves the stage. Even when the scene shifts from one role to another, she changes costumes and hairpieces behind a screen on which her silhouette appears. We know that it is MacDonald back there, but we still anticipate who she will become when she emerges into the spotlight. She dons each new persona as completely as the wig and wardrobe, a gargantuan undertaking that succeeds because of her amazing skill set. The external trappings and props indicate which of the three titular women (and four other people who I won’t give away) she is playing, but the attitude, accents and body language MacDonald adopts are what fully define each character.

Hewett employs the monologues to introduce and flesh out his characters, as well as to give voice to their different perspectives on the events of the day that Rhonda Russell, the vengeful redhead, went berserk. She opens the show with the back story of the unexpected break-up of her seventeen and a half year marriage to her cheating husband Graham. Standing erect on a nearly empty stage, wearing a belted trench coat and clutching her handbag, it is clear that Rhonda is an uptight person and not very worldly. Her life consists of tending to her home and husband, carpooling her son to and from school, picking up the dry cleaning, and regular visits with her more experienced brunette neighbor Lynette. By the end of her scene, we learn that Rhonda is in a police station and has committed a disastrous and bloody act, but it will be up to the other characters to fill in the sad and gory details.

It is not always immediately clear why a person appears as the next storyteller, but I like Hewett’s style of metaphorically opening the envelope with care, sliding out the insert and painstakingly unfolding it to reveal important, and sometimes startling, information that eventually makes someone’s significance apparent. MacDonald’s ability to register shock, fear or disgust at some of this news infuses her characters with realism and reflects the emotions of the audience. There is much that is disturbing in the tale told in The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead, especially when we recognize the random senselessness of the central event and learn of its rippling after effects. However, Hewlett tempers terrible loss with understanding and redemption, as well as a considerable amount of humor.

The play focuses on personal responsibility for choices made by the characters we meet, as well as for those we do not. How would things have been different if Graham had not cheated, or if he did not choose to leave Rhonda? Did Lynette’s meddling force Rhonda’s hand? Does it require time in prison to learn the difference between time and waste of time? This raises a parallel question concerning the choices the playwright made about which characters to show and which to leave to our imagination. Yet, all of them illustrate the interconnection that eerily exists between friends and strangers alike, even when there is no face-to-face contact, driving home the actuality of six (or fewer) degrees of separation. Ultimately, a sequence of connections combines as the causal factor of the seminal moment in the play, while another unexpected connection leads to the final redemption.

Supporting MacDonald in her tour de force performance is a strong design team. Arthur Oliver’s costumes are geared to the characters’ personalities, such as tightly wound Rhonda in her tightly belted trench coat, and fast and loose Lynette in a revealing purple blouse, leopard skirt and spike heels. Judy Gailen uses simple white panels, sometimes translucent and at other times opaque, that slide open and shut in varied configurations to imply different settings. Jarring police sirens and muted background bar sounds are equally effective in the hands of David Remedios, and lighting by Dan Kotlowitz augments mood and place. Combined with Bensussen’s vision and her ability to build to an emotional wallop, this MRT production is the total package.

Written by Robert Hewett, Directed by Melia Bensussen, Scene Design by Judy Gailen, Costume Design by Arthur Oliver, Lighting Design by Dan Kotlowitz, Sound Design by David Remedios, Stage Manager Emily F. McMullen.

Featuring: Karen MacDonald