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Out From Under It
The premise of Susan Bernfield's new play Out From Under It does not necessarily sound innovative -- a woman falls into a coma and awakes to find her world changed and unchanged -- but its execution is inventive, fresh, and subtle. In fact, the Vital Theatre Company brings us something rare and exciting in this show, directed by Alexandra Aron: a new work by a writer whose talent is germinating before our eyes.

The story of Joanna, a young advertising executive whose life is too hectic and whose relationships are strained, Out From Under It asks questions about the meaning of time in our fast-paced society. When Joanna, played by Addie Johnson, goes out on a date with Calvin (Saxon Palmer) on a snowy New York night after having torn herself away from the office, she gets hit in the head by an icy snowball and falls into a three-year coma. Her high-powered job, her love life, and her relationships with her mother and sister are all altered by this development, yet Joanna finally awakens more or less unchanged.

Within this Rip-Van-Winkle-meets-Sandra-Bullock-flick premise, Bernfield and Aron manage to show us a genuine human reaction to such an event. Joanna's wintry demeanor, which had only gradually been defrosting when the iceball bonked her silly, does not melt instantaneously when she wakes up but becomes a central metaphor with which Bernfield plays both subtly and buoyantly. After Joanna has awakened but is still being held in the hospital for observation, her mother asks, "What are you gonna do when they spring ya?" Bernfield knows that the only person who can spring this ice-bound woman is herself.

As this process occurs, the seasons change on the inventively spare set by Laura Helpern that functions as a neutral but highly appropriate tabula rasa for the lighting of Diane Fairchild and evocative projections on the various walls. These images not only convey location and mood but also reinforce Bernfield's themes regarding the fluidity of events over time.

During Joanna's recovery, her resentment of her overbearing and withholding mother Sheila (played by Pamela Dunlap) and her tension with her shy but caring sister Sarah (played by Christy Meyer) become slowly altered by a new perspective that is not granted her by divine fiat but is won as slowly and painfully as a patient regains motion through physical therapy. Dunlap and Meyer limn their characters with imagination and compelling authenticity. Their relationship with Joanna actually feels like a family dynamic -- not simply tense but authentically fractured, eccentric, and real.

Joanna's interactions with her doctor, Jane Mackie, and her doctor's sister (who has undergone a mastectomy) prove the most intriguing of all the play's relationships. Both roles are played by actress Camilla Enders, a real find whose presence is so natural and whose approach to her roles is so intriguing and thoughtful that she makes a lasting impression. As the doctor's sister, referred to only as The Titless One by the script, Enders helps Joanna regain not only the parts of herself that she lost in the accident but to recollect the scattered elements of her frantic, pre-coma identity.

In the process, we are treated to Joanna's attempts to recover her missing years in a more palpable way, including her hilarious attempt to create a prosthesis for lost time. Joanna's pre-injury subordinate and current boss Emily does her best to navigate the change in their relative positions but, like others in Joanna's life, cannot relate in most ways to her condition. Alison Weller does good work as Emily but would probably have benefited from more attention from director Aron, whose work here is often remarkably nuanced if occasionally awkward in comedic moments.

The necessary realization that the world goes on without us is stated by Joanna in terms of her work, as she observes of one advertising account, "Crumble Cakes gets sold whether I'm there or not. Hmmmm." As Joanna, Addie Johnson perfectly captures the awkwardness with herself that the protagonist never fully overcomes, both in her physical bearing and her verbal bursts of anxiety.

Bernfield has written some powerful poetry for Joanna, and the rhythms of the script are intoxicating. Initially disconcerting, Bernfield's approach finally jars us loose from our expectations regarding flow of dialogue, exposition, and the handling of tension. This allows us to absorb her ideas more fully. As Joanna finally tells her sister, "I want to talk about time because it functions now in my body like another organ, connecting with my...tissues, bones. It thwarts me because it is vibrant, languorous and seductive."

Courtesy of Bernfield, Joanna begins to develop an original way of exploring the fourth dimension as it relates to her --- and the audience does so as well. Vibrant, quirky and seductive, Out From Under It is well worth experiencing.

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