Mermaids and miracles abound in Rita Faye Pruitte, a sometimes funny, often contrived, and ultimately touching new play by Suzanne Bradbeer. Presented by Six Figures Theatre Company, the production certainly has moments of promise, but ends up being swallowed by its own ambition.
Rita Faye Pruitte (Gay Isaacs) is an archetypal single New York City woman: neurotic, lonely, and a little crazy. She is the kind of person that Nora Ephron idealizes and convinces Meg Ryan to play as the cutest woman on earth. At the beginning of the play, Rita is preparing for an event--what it is has yet to be revealed--as her best friend Aggie (Jackie Maruschak) looks on disapprovingly. Aggie is also a Nora Ephron staple--strong wise sidekick--except Nora would have cast Rob Reiner in this role.
From Aggie's friendly yet maternal reprimanding, it is clear that what Rita is preparing for is not healthy, and that it is a ritual that she forces herself to go through every year. Suddenly there is a nock on the door (strange, given that it is 3am), and a mysterious woman named Gwynne Vaughn (Monique Gramby) comes into the picture, oddly drawn to Rita's apartment by the sound of celestial music that only the two of them can hear. Overwhelmed by all this, Gwynne flips out and bolts.
The next day Rita's old flame, Jackson Mississipp (Joseph O'Brien) shows up at Rita's doorstep, having left his fiancee at the altar. Cece Pearce (Rachel Borut), the jilted bride, and Polk Mississipp (Tom Martins), his brother, soon turn up after following Jackson all the way from the destroyed wedding. This is all a bit too much for the fragile Rita, who is, on top of all this, trying to plan an important event.
To give away what Rita is planning would be unfair, as it does turn out to be one of the nicest twists in the play. It seems that she has a terrible skeleton from her past, something which has been plaguing her since she bolted from Jackson to New York. Rita Faye's stunned confession is a jolting scene, one in which the whole tone of the piece shifts from wacky comedy to heartfelt melodrama.
Bradbeer's intentions with this story are unclear from the very beginning. Whether the audience is supposed to laugh at the characters or empathize with them is never defined, forcing director Linda Ames Key to juggle two very different theatrical styles simultaneously. The combination is a difficult, perhaps impossible, one to pull off.
There is some very nice acting in this production, despite the stylistic schizophrenia. Gay Isaacs as Rita Faye is heartbreaking, creating real sympathy for this tortured woman. She rises to the challenge of breathing life into this uneven character's voice, and her best moments come when she closes her mouth and observes all the craziness around her. With her bright, vulnerable eyes, Isaacs can say everything. Tom Martins as Polk and Monique Gramby as Gwynne are also able to pull off some truly genuine moments, playing the only other people that can hear and see the same magic as Rita. They are both actors of grace and skill.
Jackie Maruschak and Rachel Borut, as Aggie and Cece respectively, are stuck in one-note character roles that seem to exist only to provide opposition to Rita's fantasy world. They do manage to have some nice moments, but their characters only seem to be preaching their own personal philosophies, never talking to anyone. Joseph O'Brien is stuck with the arduous task of playing Jackson, a cliched Southern bumbler, straight out of an episode of Designing Women. The character is such a terrible goof that it is impossible to imagine either Rita or Cece ever falling for this guy.
The prevailing message of the play is that it is impossible to erase past mistakes, but that there is a way to make peace with them. It is a nice thought: that every person is divine in some way or another. It is just too bad that Bradbeer did not make this concept the focus of the play, rather than turning it into a stew of ingredients that just do not mix.