Danielle Skraastad, Susan Pourfar, Marin Ireland,
Miriam F. Glover and Michael Chernus in In The Wake
(© Joan Marcus)
Danielle Skraastad, Susan Pourfar, Marin Ireland,
Miriam F. Glover and Michael Chernus in In The Wake
(© Joan Marcus)
A woman finds her personal life unraveling and her political beliefs challenged in Lisa Kron's In the Wake, playing at the Public Theater. Set against the backdrop of the major news stories of the first half of the decade, the show has the potential to pack an intellectual and emotional wallop. Yet, despite a top-notch ensemble working under the sure-handed guidance of director Leigh Silverman, and a fair share of zesty dialogue, the play proves to be a strangely unmoving experience.

In the Wake begins on Thanksgiving in 2000 in the Lower East Side apartment (skillfully rendered by scenic designer David Korins) belonging to Ellen (Marin Ireland) and her boyfriend Danny (Michael Chernus). As the play moves forward, theatergoers witness how their relationship strains under Ellen's inability to fully commit to it, even as she manages to dive with zeal into a series of overly ambiguous political volunteer and advocacy positions. Various key moments in the couple's lives -- as well as their friends' lives -- are seen even as they reel from the 9/11 attacks, the onset of the war in Iraq, and the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina.

While these world-shaking events unfold, smaller, yet equally seismic, ones occur in the other characters' lives. The couple's downstairs neighbors -- would-be writer Kayla (Susan Pourfar) and aspiring chef Laurie (Danielle Skraastad) -- marry and, ultimately find that they might be happier outside of the city. Judy (Deirdre O'Connell) takes in her mixed-race niece Tessa (Miriam F. Glover) from Kentucky, and the two ultimately move to Washington D.C., as Judy attempts to manage her affair with an unseen married man. All of the characters also struggle with the arrival of Amy (Jenny Bacon), the sister of an old school chum of Ellen's, who becomes a keenly felt presence in their lives.

Unfortunately, like the world events that are seen in some exquisitely chosen and assembled video montages from designer Alexander V. Nichols, most of the meaty action in In the Wake takes place offstage, whether it's Kayla's supposedly gut-wrenching decision to commit to a placid life of domesticity or the tumultuous events that transpire for Judy and Tessa after they've moved to Washington.

Theatergoers hear about these occurrences -- and a lot about what Ellen is feeling or thinking about them -- but are too rarely shown them. What remains, sadly, are increasingly tiresome diatribes and debates about the political landscape surrounding them. One potentially gripping scene, where the just-teenaged Tessa shares her anti-gay feelings, begins with pulsing urgency and awkwardness -- but fizzles as it devolves into a lecture.

The always reliable Ireland bears the brunt of having to deliver the polemics of the script and, unsurprisingly, she does so with flair. She also imbues Ellen with a highly-strung neuroticism that periodically draws audiences' hearts in. And O'Connell's work is particularly commendable when she turns Judy's final confrontation with Ellen, which, in lesser hands, could just be a statement of the show's moral, into its emotional and theatrical highpoint.