There’s a prologue in near darkness that takes place in an apartment. The sound of old television commercials has been playing since the audience arrived and continues to do so. A young woman enters and the lamp won’t turn on. Later, she has a problem opening an orange juice container. Another young woman enters and is in view for a while. Eventually the lights come up and the play begins.
It is 1987 and we’re in Gloria’s apartment. Soon Mary arrives. There’s a lot of Pinteresque chatter some of which is about what to drink. We learn that Mary is a nurse and has had to put her mother into a nursing home after suffering a stroke. After about 30 minutes, a plot takes shape.
Gloria has returned to her Ohio hometown after a long absence and is renting this furnished apartment. Shortly after graduating high school she ran away, joined a farm commune, had two children and has had no contact with her family or friends since. What precipitated this drastic action was Gloria witnessing a steamy situation reminiscent of one of playwright William Inge’s traumatic sexual episodes.
Mary was deeply hurt by Gloria’s sudden departure as the two were best friends. The play’s title refers to their imaginary friend whom the two idealized and who has stayed in their consciousness. George and Martha’s unreal child in Edward Albee’s Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes to mind. They also question their life choices and world views.
But you’re a nurse! Not a writer, or publisher, or travel book author. All those lives we talked about. All the details of professional careers that we could discuss for hours. The houses we would live in, every room laid out. We were guessing, you know?
Well, we grew up and made decisions based on circumstances.
I understand responsibility, and I understand how you sometimes end up doing something that doesn’t fulfill you. And if you’re working without fulfillment, then you’ll be unhappy.
Looking like it’s out of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho is a third silent character that pops up periodically. Is it symbolic? Profound? Or silly? It’s up to you.
Lauren LaRocca as Gloria and Peregrine Heard as Mary are each exquisite, intense and have a tremendous rapport with each other. They’re also delightfully actressy at times. Those with a sense of theater history could well think that we’re watching Geraldine Page and Sandy Dennis battle it out.
In addition to achieving such strong performances director Jamal Abdunnasir’s staging has a suitably deliberate pace for emphasizing the piece’s mystery and eeriness. Mr. Abdunnasir also puts in plenty of theatrical flourishes. The play is performed on a runway stage with the audience on two sides of the rectangular playing area. Abdunnasir comes up with compositions and stage pictures that command attention.
Worn linoleum merging with a frayed carpet section, faded living room furniture and a basic wood kitchen set and appliances are the features of Brittany Vasta’s authentic scenic design. It resembles the chamber of someone in a state of flux.
Tyler First and Victoria Bain’s lighting design is a textured blend of spooky dimness and crisp brightness. Ghostly wailing, bumpy noises and evocative music are all part of Mark Van Hare’s enveloping sound design.
Costume designer Isabelle Coler has the two women clothed in Midwestern simplicity with colorful flashes indicating they have a fashion sense. The spectral interloper is quite Mrs. Bates.
Ms. Heard, Ms. LaRocca, Mr. Abdunnasir, Emily Stout and Casey Worthington met as apprentices at Actors Theatre of Louisville and founded The Associates in 2014. “They create stories at the intersection of their personal nightmares, cultural taboos, and current political landscape, where differences among them become the engine of dramatic action.”
The play was written “because we wanted to turn up the volume on the outrageous paradox of female existence in this country… As the current surge of women’s stories hits the news, the critical question [is] what choices do these women really have?”
Though composed of many derivative elements that don’t fully cohere, Sheila is rewarding and haunting.
Sheila (through January 27, 2017)
A.R.T./New York Theatres
Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre, 502 West 53 Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, visit http://www.theassociatestheater.com
Running time: 75 minutes with no intermission