Annie Parisse as Becky Shaw and David Wilson Barnes as Max in Gina Gionfriddo's brilliant Becky Shaw. Below, Barnes, Mia Barron as Suzanna and Davis Duffield as Andrew in Shaw. All photos in this post by Harlan Taylor | Actors Theatre of Louisville.
It isn’t uncommon to look at the Humana Festival of New American Plays lineup, get all excited about a new work from a familiar author, and then walk away deflated by an effort that wasn’t quite all it could have been – maybe wasn’t even near. This year, the marquee names were Gina Gionfriddo and Lee Blessing, well known writers with solid resumes of stage hits.
And it is exhilarating to report that the results were a masterpiece and a great play from the pair.
Gionfriddo’s Becky Shaw was the masterpiece at the festival that wrapped up March 30 at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
It is a play that has everything going on: witty banter, a compelling story and wise observations about the human condition. You only realized it was a long journey after the standing ovation died down.
We started in a tense hotel room meeting. Following her father’s death, Suzanna and her mother Susan were locked in a bitter argument about Susan’s financial status and new boy toy. Attempting to mediate was Max, the financial planner who was taken in by Susan and Suzanna’s family after his mother died when he was 10. The scene ended with Susan storming out and Max and Suzanna consummating their relationship.
Fast forward a year, and Suzanna was married . . . to Andrew, a guy Suzanna met on a ski trip that Max told her to take to help heal after her father’s death. Andrew and Suzanna have set Max up on a date with Becky Shaw. The moment you saw Becky, you knew this would not go well with perfectionist Max. Becky was flighty, living the life of an aimless high school graduate at age 35. But she also showed an early ability to cut to the heart of situations, avoiding a lot of the analysis Suzanna piled on.
That’s the first act. Act II twists and turns several times, coming to a surprising but surprisingly real ending. It also made you think a lot about the characters and how they interacted along the way.
Max was at many moments an incredible jerk. Casting him correctly will be a real key in future productions, because we need to maintain some sympathy for him for the play to work. But sometimes, as much as you hated to admit it, Max was right.
Suzanna and Andrew are good folks, but it was sort of a surface goodness, and Gionfriddo made us contemplate how useful it was.
Becky Shaw was the best exploration of relationships and emotions at Humana since Donald Margulies Dinner With Friends, which came out of the 1998 festival to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama.