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Hallie Foote and Ebon Moss-Bachrach
in When They Speak of Rita
Days after seeing Daisy B. Foote's somber, quietly affecting When They Speak of Rita at Primary Stages, I'm still torn over the play. Not over its merits--those are abundantly clear just a few minutes into the 90-minute drama. What's got me stuck are the play's themes and the character of Rita; my sympathies and emotions haven't been this conflicted since Oleanna.

The time of the play is the present, but it feels like 25 years ago: Rita (Hallie Foote, the playwright's sister) is a housewife who cleans houses on the side; her husband, Asa (a dead-on, dim-witted Ken Marks), is a road agent; their son, Warren, is an aspiring mechanic. It's no surprise that Rita feels unfulfilled pouring the family's coffee (God forbid anyone else should lift the pot) and fetching peanut butter cookies from the overactive oven. Her husband snaps and blames her for everything ("Why did you make me do that?" he implores) and her son has no respect for her ("You clean houses; that's how people see you"). The highlights of her days are visits from Warren's friend Jimmy (Ebon Moss-Bachrach) and his gingham-clad, cutie girlfriend, Jeannie (the Mena Suvari-esque Margot White). Jimmy loves Rita's cooking and their discussions; the college-bound Jeannie allows Rita to fawn over her.

Even when Rita suggests to the newly pregnant Jeannie that having the baby and giving up college was not her only option--apparently, the girl is smart enough to rate a full scholarship at the University of New Hampshire but not attuned to the concept of birth control--I'm still on her side. Sure, I'm rooting for Rita to get out of there: to remove those oven mitts, step into some kick-ass boots which are made for walking, and head straight for the door. But when she does just that (minus the boots), it's not so exhilarating, because she does it with 19-year-old Jimmy. He tells her she's beautiful. He tells her she's a star. With his fuzzy hair, and his pubescent eyes brimming with idealism, he becomes what she's looking for.

It's easy to get high-and-mighty about all of this. How else can you look at the romance between a 40-ish woman and a teenage boy? By the end of the play, it gets tougher and tougher to take Rita's side. (What do you know: Daisy Foote has turned the whole thing around on us, without so much as a bump in the road.) I have to resist the temptation to step up on my twenty-something soapbox and say with all the big-city wisdom and quasi-feminist idealism I can muster, "Stop whining and do something." There are so many people like Rita out there--people who can't glean advice from a Sex and the City episode. Not every problem can be remedied by the perfect pair of Miu-Miu slides, or counseling, or divorce, or a new job, or moving away. That's what makes When They Speak of Rita so gripping.

Fortunately, Hallie Foote finds great depth in the title character. She underplays brilliantly, as does most of the cast (although Jamie Bennett does get a bit too broad). The fact that the whole thing never descends into Lifetime movie territory is impressive enough, but that it actually plays Off-Broadway is an even bigger achievement. Hallie, Daisy, and director Horton Foote--the women's father, and a pretty good playwright himself--have created an evening of theater that is wonderfully complex, sensitive, and thought-provoking.

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