Playwright John Belluso once said, "I've always felt that there's a theatrical element to being disabled." and his powerful play, A Nervous Smile, reflects his words in a stunning production, beautifully directed by Whitney Smith.
Produced by Dramatic Repertory Company of Portland, Maine and Artistic Director, Keith Powell Beyland, A Nervous Smile takes you on an emotional roller coaster of life changing decisions and consequences that a wealthy couple and their friend must confront when the reality of giving their lives over to the care of a child who will always need them is more than they can and, perhaps, want to give.
Playwright Belluso (1969-2006) began using a wheelchair at age 13, and was a pioneering champion for artists with disabilities. A Nervous Smile, a gripping testament to the subject of how choice is a disability in itself, was his last complete play before his untimely death.
Smith paints a riveting picture with the perfect blend of drama, dark comedy and poignancy. Her blocking is clean and works well in the three-quarter black box, never cheating the audience out of a shared moment. Smith, who is a master of sensory direction, directs a powerful arc for each actor to travel and each audience member to experience.
Dramatic Repertory Company has cast a strong ensemble of four actors who play a strained tug of war with each scene and each line, pushing themselves and the audience to a fierce breaking point.
Paul Drinian (Brian) brings a layered performance that acts as a strong foundation for the three ladies to perform with. Drinian's physicality, emotional grasp of the lines and command of the stage show us the disintegrating arc that makes him love and hate in the same moment. One might question Laura Graham's (Eileen) acting choices at first but she eventually exposes the raw, vicidin swallowing woman behind the wealthy facade. Molly W. Bryant Roberts (Nic) gives a solid performance, her commitment to the turmoil of her relationship and parental choices clear and beautifully acted. Bryant Roberts's speech about hitting her disabled son is the most powerful moment of the play. Jackie Oliveri (Blanka) is deliciously perfect in her role. Oliveri has total command of her character's choices and dark comedy. Congratulations to Oliveri for consistency and clarity in her challenging accent. The production is complimented by the words and brief appearance of 14 years old Holly Hinchliffe (Emily).
Beyland's set design worked well for the blocking but failed to give the opulence of the wealthy couple in its content. The rug with its jail-like design was a good choice. The large windows attached to the black back wall needed to reflect the world the characters wanted but couldn't have with either an image, a better focused gobo or colored light. The lighting design by Michaela Wirth was inconsistent, barely illuminating the actors when they played closest to the audience. Sound design by Chris Fitze complimented the play. Unfortunately, a lot of the costumes (designer unnamed) were black or dark in color and disappeared against the black walls.
Writer Robert Fritz once said, "If you limit your choices only to what seems possible or reasonable, you disconnect yourself from what you truly want, and all that is left is compromise."
Dramatic Repertory Company has created a "must see" evening of theatre that will challenge your idea of "right and wrong" to its core. I guarantee you will not stop talking about this play long after the lights go black. Go experience it!
A Nervous Smile plays through March 18 at the Studio Theatre at Portland Stage, 25A Forest Avenue, Portland, Maine. For tickets and information call 800-838-3006 or go to dramaticrep.org
PHOTO: Laura Graham, Paul Drinan, Molly W. Bryant Roberts and Jackie Oliveri in the Dramatic Repertory Company production of A NERVOUS SMILE by John Belluso (Emily Delamater Photo)