Sarah Steele and Željko Ivanek in Slowgirl
(© Erin Baiano)
Sarah Steele and Željko Ivanek in Slowgirl
(© Erin Baiano)
For its inaugural production in its intimate and handsomely appointed The Claire Tow Theater, Lincoln Center Theater's LCT3 program has chosen a beautifully crafted two-hander, Greg Pierce's Slowgirl.

Directed with care and a sense of keen observation by Anne Kauffman and featuring a pair of delicately rendered performances by Sarah Steele and Željko Ivanek, the show fits beautifully into the space, highlighting its simple charms and simultaneously expansive capabilities.

Pierce's drama centers on Becky Steele), a teenager who has been sent to visit her uncle Sterling (Ivanek) at his rustic home in the remote recesses of Costa Rica. Pierce gradually and fascinatingly reveals the details behind Becky's trip to Central America -- as well as for Sterling's self-imposed exile from the U.S. and his career as an attorney -- as the two wounded and lost souls come to know and trust one another over the course of Becky's nearly week-long visit.

It's an engrossing variation on the "buddy play," but one of the factors that makes Slowgirl stand out from other such pieces is the layer of spirituality which runs throughout the play; Sterling has built himself a replica of the labyrinth at Chartes where he attempts to teach Becky about contemplation.

Equally important are the two distinct voices that Pierce captures. Impressively, his writing for the halting and frequently stammering Sterling sounds as authentic as the torrent of words that come -- often impulsively and unthinkingly -- out of Becky.

Steele and Ivanek turn in performances that simultaneously demand attention and prove enormously touching. Steele expertly captures not only Becky's wise-before-her-time essence, but also the the immature bravado that Becky has adopted to mask her many insecurities and self-doubt.

As Sterling, Ivanek delivers a performance that gently shifts from an awkwardness that's more befitting a gangly teen suddenly confronted with a social situation, to a commanding adult figure, intent on both nurturing and protecting his young guest. And when the time comes for Sterling to face the ghosts of his past, audiences will come to recognize the subtlest detail of Ivanek's performance, when for the first time in 80 minutes, he shifts his stooping posture, allowing audiences to understand how Sterling has grown and is ready to confront the world with his head held high.

The two performances are beautifully framed by Rachel Nauck's scenic design, which not only brings Sterling's ramshackle home in the jungle to life, but also his rocky labyrinthine haven. Nauck's design even encompasses the forest itself: she flanks the playing area with angled green planks that beautifully indicate towering trees.

It's an environment that's evocatively lit by Japhy Weideman, particularly during one late night chat between Becky and Sterling when the stage seems to simply glow under white moonlight. At that moment, audiences who've not already been hooked by the play will, most likely, find themselves on the edges of their seats, drawn into an ever-deepening relationship that's pulsing with intensity, confusion, and love.