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Deirdre O'Connell is absolutely brilliant in the New York premiere of Lee Thuna's play.

Rick Stear and Deirdre O'Connell in Fugue
(© Carol Rosegg)
A couple of years ago, Deirdre O'Connell received a well-deserved Obie Award for sustained excellence. The actress has done stellar work every time I've seen her, and her current performance in Lee Thuna's Fugue -- well directed by another award-winning actress, Judith Ivey -- is no exception. The play, which was originally written in 1986 and has been revised for its current New York premiere at the Cherry Lane Theatre, is rather predictable in structure; but, thanks in large part to O'Connell, it's still quite compelling.

Years after enduring both a personal and a professional tragedy, psychiatrist Danny Lucchesi (Rick Stear) is brought back into service to help a woman who's suffering from a rare form of amnesia known as "fugue," which involves not only loss of memory but of one's very identity. The patient (O'Connell), who has been assigned the name "Mary Smith," was found wandering the streets of Chicago and is thought to be running away from some kind of traumatic event that holds the key to her condition.

As Danny works with Mary, we see fragments from her past, including moments with her mother (Catherine Wolf); her first boyfriend, Noel (Ari Butler); her daughter, Tammy (Lily Corvo); and a woman named Liz "Kru" Kruger (Danielle Straastad), whose importance to Mary's life eventually becomes clear. In the present, Mary is visited in the hospital by Zelda (Charlotte Booker), who claims to be a childhood friend and says that Mary's real name is Cecilia.

The script is rather formulaic, with a doctor who himself needs healing called upon to treat a patient who fits his specialty. Also, it's a little unconvincing that Danny gets Mary to start remembering things within minutes of his arrival, considering that no one else has been able to make any headway with her previously. But, despite these drawbacks, the play is surprisingly effective and ultimately quite moving.

The mystery surrounding Mary's life and what has led her to her present state is mixed with hints about the incident that cost Danny so much, including his confidence in his ability to help patients. When the truths about both finally come out, they have great emotional impact.

O'Connell is nothing short of brilliant, displaying both grit and vulnerability as Mary. There's always a great deal going on in her character's face, and yet it never seems overplayed. In other hands, Mary's moment of revelation could easily come across as melodramatic, but O'Connell grounds it with a nuanced and heartfelt performance. Stear is also quite good, and he makes Danny's revelation of his own past trauma very potent.

Butler is adorable as Mary's former sweetheart; the prom scene that he shares with O'Connell is one of the play's brightest moments. Booker is hilarious as the annoying Zelda, and Wolf is an imposing yet kind presence as Mary's mother. Corvo and Skraastad are both solid, yet they don't give their characters that extra infusion of energy and personality that would make them stand out. As Danny's colleague Dr. John Oleander, Liam Craig has no such trouble, delivering a terrific performance in a role that could have been fairly flat.

Neil Patel's scenic design puts Mary's hospital room at a skewed angle front and center, without walls, which facilitates the transitions into flashbacks. Pat Dignan's lighting, Gail Cooper-Hecht's costumes, Stanley Silverman's original music, and the sound design by T. Richard Fitzgerald and Carl Casella's also make important contributions to the production.


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