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Kelly McAndrew and Arnie Burton
in Eugene's Home
(Photo © Kevin Sprague)
Is it permissible to take an uncharitable view of a play about charity? What if it's a play about the contradictory nature of charity? Kathy Levin Shapiro's autobiographical work Eugene's Home, making its world premiere at the Berkshire Theatre Festival, comes from a place of compassion but is so torpid as to try a sympathizer's patience.

To précis the parallels: As a 23-year-old Brown grad, Shapiro began working in a Baltimore nursing home. A year later, she founded an international, intergenerational friendship initiative called "Magic Me." A decade after that, during a spate of Broadway producing (the Tyne Daly Gypsy, etc.), she struck up a friendship with a young man with cerebral palsy named Eugene. In the play, an affluent young Ivy League alum named Talie (Kelly McAndrew, who took over for the injured Ashley Judd in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway last season) is running a program called "Heart Works" when she enters into a tumultuous relationship with, yes, a young man with cerebral palsy named Eugene (the talented Arnie Burton, who has thoroughly mastered the physicality of CP's primary presenting symptom, motor impairment).

It takes considerable artistry to turn a memoir into vibrant drama: think Glass Menagerie. This memory play is more pedestrian, off to a clunky start soon after a shower curtain-like expanse of white duck parts to reveal a bleak hospital scene: a comatose patient hooked up to an IV and monitor. Even before Talie muses (predictably) "I'll never forget the day I first saw you," we have a very good idea of how this pas de deux is going to end up.

McAndrew's role is difficult in that Talie proves to be an emotional dilettante; the actress lends an appropriate, preppy brusqueness to the character. It would not be revealing too much to note that, in this rather formulaic script, Eugene turns out to be not the only "cripple." Just how Talie finally reveals her own blockages is maudlin beyond belief. Nor is Eugene a paragon of virtue. He's a liar -- a fabricator and self-mythologizer, to put it kindly -- and, as Talie rails at him, "a first-class manipulator." Unfortunately, that title seems equally apropos for the playwright. Shapiro uses every device in the book, including an unnamed offstage interrogator who asks Talie "Was it sexual?" about 10 times, to wrest every last drop of angst from this improbable coupling.

The situation ought to be touching -- and it probably would be if Talie, as the point-of-view character, weren't so insufferably self-justifying and smug. (Too much self-revelation can backfire.) Though McAndrew is stuck with a role that requires her to be alternately brittle and solicitous, she does have a few genuine moments. In an array of supplemental roles, New York veteran Kathleen Doyle employs an overly theatrical voice that kills any scintilla of realism. It's Burton's Eugene who'll steal your heart and stay with you -- as, perhaps, is fitting.

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