A 17-year-old girl writes a death mass in Greg Pierce's world premiere.
A young woman on 65th Street is writing an allegedly earth-shattering work of classical music. No, she's not a student at Juilliard, but Caitlin, a teenage prodigy in Greg Pierce's Her Requiem, now making its world premiere at LCT3's Claire Tow Theater. Pierce (whose world premiere Slowgirl inaugurated the Claire Tow) gives us a fascinating look at the fine line between commitment and obsession, practicality and philistinism. Even within the unconditional love of a family, can self-interest be detected? Absolutely.
Allison (Mare Winningham) and Dean (Peter Friedman) are married and living in Allison's family home in Vermont with Allison's mother (Joyce van Patten) and their daughter, Caitlin (Naian González Norvind). We don't see Caitlin for the first half of the play, however, because she's locked in her room, composing a requiem (a mass for the dead). It's an audacious project for a 17-year-old; Allison worries that taking a year off school to compose funeral music will hurt Caitlin's chances at getting into a good college. "I guar-an-tee they won't have a single other high school student who's written a requiem," Dean reassures her.
Otherwise unemployed, Dean dedicates himself completely to this project, ghostwriting a blog of Caitlin's progress (he floats the theory that it is actually a requiem for our dying planet, piquing the interest of environmentalists and goths). He encourages her collaboration with Tommy (Robbie Collier Sublett), a former seminarian with a vast knowledge of requiems. Tommy insists that what is happening in Caitlin's bedroom is nothing short of a miracle. Allison becomes increasingly uncomfortable with this handsome thirtysomething spending so much time in her daughter's bedroom. She becomes incensed when a gaggle of gothic groupies, led by Mirtis Paima (the hilarious Keilly McQuail, sporting a vocal fry and bowed head), begin to occupy the family barn at the invitation of her husband.
Director Kate Whoriskey hits all the right notes, a happy meeting of smart design and layered performances. Winningham and Friedman have a believable chemistry as a couple of aging Vermont hippies. As Allison, Winningham seems every bit the sensible breadwinner to her family (costume designer Jessica Pabst styles her like Jane Sanders), holding on to her superfluous husband out of pure love. It's a love that is tested at every turn by Friedman's exasperating Dean, who piles contempt on all who doubt his quixotic vision. "F*ck moderation," he shouts, a wild look in his eye. "What are we doing, Dean?" Allison asks when things start to get out of hand. "I mean, I just go along with your crazy sh*t because if I don't, you make me feel like I'm a tight-ass or I don't 'get it,' but... What kind of mother am I to go along with this?" She's like a Hillary harpy talking to a Bernie bro…and she hates it.
Truly, Dean is so blinded by the prospect of his daughter's glory (and its trickle down) that he willingly invites Nosferatu into her bedroom. The handsome and seemingly nonthreatening Sublett gives the evening's creepiest, most surprising performance as Tommy, an emotionally stunted religious fanatic with delusions of grandeur. He uses his authority and charm to manipulate the teenage shut-in (embodied by Norvind with disquieting authenticity). We completely believe that he studied for the priesthood.
This disturbing action takes place on Derek McLane's travel catalogue cover of a set, a comfortable abode for Vermonters of a certain economic strata. A wall of books guards the door to Caitlin's room. Antique knickknacks occupy a room-length credenza. Crossbows and wagon wheels are mounted on the walls. This rustic Vermont dream home is awash in earth tones, which lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker further bathes in a comforting incandescent glow. It is initially warm and inviting (aided by Joshua Schmidt's gentle guitar soundtrack), but feels increasingly cold and harsh as the play progresses. Schmidt underscores the transitions with famous requiems (Mozart, Fauré, and Verdi), giving us a sense of what Caitlin is writing while aurally transforming this home into a funeral parlor.
Beyond an introductory timpani roll, we never actually hear Caitlin's masterpiece, which leaves us to draw our own conclusions about its worth. That is just as well, considering the subjectivity of taste (and the tendency of a background story to color one's judgment). Pierce probingly explores our tendency to see our own issues in a great works of art, even if those themes weren't intended by the artist. Dean hears a work about global warming and terrorism; Tommy hears a devotional mass. "Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital," Oscar Wilde wrote in his preface to The Picture of Dorian Grey. Here's hoping for a few pans of this absorbing new play.