Playwright Beth Hyland’s very effective conceit is that we’re watching the dress rehearsal of Annie Lambert’s memorial celebration in an auditorium of the State University of New York at Onondaga. There, students act out Ms. Lambert’s story in the manner of a Greek chorus often directly addressing the audience. “What would Annie have wanted?”
Ms. Hyland richly chronicles Annie’s life from her birth until her murder by a mentally unstable ex-boyfriend. Hyland’s writing is filled with authentic details that vividly realize her central character as well as subtly delineating the rest of the group.
Annie is from an Upstate New York working class background and works at a supermarket while attending college. She is in a sorority, plays sports and plans to be a teacher. She becomes romantically involved with an older and quirky student, Nick Wilson. Everything is idyllic until his increasing possessiveness turns menacing.
Hyland’s highly theatrical treatment infuses such a sadly familiar situation with dynamism as well as restrained sentimentality. Performers toss around bright red handkerchiefs that symbolize conflicts and bad events. She adds a further layer of depth by having the real Annie appear and comment on some of the events being dramatized.
With the plucky charm of the young Sandra Bullock, Julia Greer is captivating as the student playing Annie. Ms. Greer gracefully conveys the spirit of wide-eyed innocence with her magnetic portrayal that anchors the presentation.
Dark-haired, wiry and intense, the physically slight Bartley Booz winningly plays the student who acts out the role of the volatile Nick. The boyish Mr. Booz strikingly succeeds at humanizing this villain with his offbeat vocal delivery that is simultaneously humorous and chilling. During a sequence at a local bar, Booz also demonstrates terrific dance skills.
Ari Shapiro’s appealing goofiness is used to marvelous effect as Max, Annie’s new boyfriend, especially when extolling the greatness of Justin Bieber.
The lovely and forceful Elizabeth Colwell makes a fierce and haunting appearance as the spirit of Annie who despairs at how her life has become mythologized.
Shelby Green, Sammi Katz, Alex Najarian, Andrea Negrete, Aliza Sotsky, Leila Teitelman, and Laura Winters complete the ensemble. All sensationally and rapidly offer perfect characterizations of the gallery of people in Annie’s life that include her friends, parents and younger sisters.
Director Emma Miller’s exhilarating staging makes the series of vignettes on display quite compelling. There’s continuous visual stimulation with the creative placement of the actors on the small, sparely set stage. The fast scene transitions are artfully realized as the cast swiftly moves objects around or throws a blanket over a bench, in one instance, creating a car.
Lucia Knell’s frenetic choreography enhances the perpetual imagery used in the storytelling. It’s all accompanied by a roster of emblematic period pop songs selected by the author.
Small white cubes, a Greco white bench, a multitude of photographs clothes pinned to ropes, strings of Christmas lights and a string of little toy horses are among the neat elements of Emmie Finckel’s colorful, small-scale set design. There’s also a simple white curtain on which illustrative slides are projected.
Amy Elliott’s lighting design strategically veers from basic brightness to total darkness for appropriately dramatic results. The music and narrative effects are ably represented by Lauren Zoppo’s sound design.
Though mostly blue T-shirts with the sorority logo and jeans, Dara Affholter’s simple costume design adds to the simulated realism. Annie wears a white T-shirt with her name in glitter.
This production is presented by The Hearth, a theatre company whose goal is to produce “plays that explore female characters that pulse with emotional, intellectual, and psychological complexity.”
For Annie decidedly fulfills that mission and renders its heartbreaking subject with great accomplishment.
For Annie (through January 15, 2017)
The Lucid Body House, 230 Lexington Avenue, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 929-269-4784 or visit http://www.TheHearthTheater.com
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission