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Redemption Story

An exploration into the idea of redemption within a self-perception fashioned by past film roles.

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Christine Toy Johnson and José Espinosa in a scene from Peregrine Teng Heard’s “Redemption Story” at Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett)

[avatar user=”Scotty Bennett” size=”96″ align=”left”] Scotty Bennett, Critic[/avatar]

Consider, if you will, a moment when all of your thoughts and feelings from 20 years before come sliding into your consciousness, not in a coherent stream but in a maelstrom of conflicting emotions. You think you know who you are and where you are, but the reality may be quite different. Enter a Los Angeles diner in 1971 and meet a fading actress trying to make sense of the world she now occupies 20 years after she first came to town.

Redemption Story, written by Peregrine Teng Heard, is an exploration into the psyche of Connie Lee, an actor with 20 years of experience acting in noir films of the 1940’s and 1950’s, who now calls herself a housewife. Christine Toy Johnson expertly embodies the character, skillfully revealing the psycho-social dynamics that keeps her somewhere between the reality of 1971 and the roles she played in film.

Director Sarah Blush guides a strong cast, effectively supporting the narrative themes of the show as it explores the idea of redemption in a self-perception fashioned by past film roles. It is coupled with the social alienation of being an Asian woman playing stereotypical characters. It was the norm in the movie business in those years, but if those issues are not enough, mix in feelings of conditional love and estrangement.

Christine Toy Johnson and Dee Beasnael in a scene from Peregrine Teng Heard’s “Redemption Story” at Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett)

The play starts with Connie Lee sitting in a local diner when a handsome, wide-eyed young man walks in carrying a suitcase. It is obvious to her that he is another acting hopeful from somewhere in America. She is immediately attracted to him and begins to engage him in a conversation. Billy Jay is from a small town outside of Las Vegas and has come to LA to find a job in radio. José Espinosa is solidly believable as a naive, unsophisticated early 20’s man-child looking for a break in LA. Still, as the play develops, it may be more than those first impressions.

Connie’s interest in Billy Jay appears at first to be a sexual attraction, but that initial feeling is dispelled when she learns more about his reasons for being in LA. He is obsessed with being on the radio even when Connie keeps talking about TV and movies. Finally, she gives him the name of her friend and talent agent Bruce because she says a future in film is for Billy Jay. After he leaves the diner, Eva (Dee Beasnael), the diner owner, comes over to Connie. Their conversation deals with the view of young men like Billy Jay and how they are naïve and gullible, and Connie should be careful with her intentions.

This conversation provides insight into Eva’s and Connie’s backgrounds. Eva is a steadying influence in Connie’s world, and Beasnael captures the mixture of disappointment and resolve that Eva feels after giving up her acting career because of the industry’s racism and starting a diner. She has a realistic perspective on the world of make-believe that the movie industry exemplifies, and she is a voice of reason for Connie even if Connie is unable to respond.

José Espinosa and Emily Stout in a scene from Peregrine Teng Heard’s “Redemption Story” at Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett)

The action set about a week later offers clues into Connie’s mental state. Billy arrives at her apartment to tell her of his successful meeting with Bruce. In the exchange, Connie reveals that she was concerned about his absence from the diner over the last week since she was anxious to know what transpired with Bruce. After Billy Jay tells her of the success of the meeting, Connie seems to be out of sorts, so Billy Jay goes to get her some water. At this moment, she takes some pills and quickly swallows them dry. Her seeming earlier disorientation and the pills provide questions about her state of mind. As Billy Jay returns with the water, Connie says he looks like someone she knew.

Connie: Com’ere. (takes his face in her hands) … He has darker hair, he’s not so skinny. But you have the same… cheeks. You have the same eyes. The same teeth in your mouth…

Billy: Are you thinking of your husband? Con?

Connie: Not my husband, Harrison. I’m glad I get to see these eyes and teeth again. It’s hard to go without seeing them. I just want to see him, up close, life-size. Is that…?

While Harrison’s identity is not revealed at this point, Connie’s state of mind is put on full display as she rambles about cancer, hospitals, and isolation. After Billy Jay gets her settled down and leaves, a dream sequence begins with Billy Jay dancing with Connie in his arms. Then, an unknown man enters, replaces him, and finally settles Connie back on her couch.

Gregory Saint George and José Espinosa in a scene from Peregrine Teng Heard’s “Redemption Story” at Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett)

From this point on, the story focuses on Connie’s obsession with Billy Jay’s increasing success in movies and other events, such as finding a girlfriend and discovering things about himself he never understood. Each of these moments expands on the portrait of Connie as a troubled woman, revealing aspects of her past life and present psychology, blurring the lines between what is real and what is fiction.

Additional characters round out this developing portrait. Eva’s employee, Baker, a gay actor working at the diner, solidly embodied by Gregory Saint Georges, reveals the sexual confusion of Billy Jay. Billy Jay’s girlfriend Florence is given a perfect turn by Emily Stout as an ingenue model with designs on acting. She introduces an element of conflict to Connie’s life. Finally, Harrison (Mitchell Winter), a character who dominates the final act with a revelation that brings Connie’s state of mind into sharp relief.

Scenic devices within the play add elements of mystery to what is being played out. How much of the story is real, and how much is the creation of Connie’s imagination? Heard’s story plays with elements of noir without fully embracing that form. Blush’s skillful direction blends a noir sensibility in some characters, notably Connie, without staging the whole enterprise in that form. The approach is essential since the story arc reveals Connie’s view of reality, shaped by her experience in noir films and conflicts with a more realistic view of the world seen in other characters. Finding the right balance is tricky, but Heard and Blush have succeeded in finding that balance.

Christine Toy Johnson and José Espinosa in a scene from Peregrine Teng Heard’s “Redemption Story” at Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres (Photo credit: Travis Emery Hackett)

In a play that is dealing with perceptions of reality bordering on delusion and hallucination, scenic design and lighting play an especially important role. Scenic designer Emmie Finckel creates settings that work well within the small venue and combined with Jiahao (Neil) Qiu’s lighting design effectively support the action. The sound design by John Gasper establishes good balance and tone as a vital supporting element in this type of story, and Dan Wang’s costume design closes the loop on the staging elements with solid period costumes that fit the personalities of the characters.

Redemption Story (through May 19, 2024)

The Associates Theater Ensemble

Jeffrey and Paula Gural Theatre at the A.R.T./New York Theatres, 502 West 53rd Street, in Manhattan

For tickets, visit https://www.universe.com/events/redemption-story-tickets-SDVTKH

Running time: 100 minutes without an intermission

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About Scotty Bennett (80 Articles)
Scotty Bennett is a retired businessman who has worn many hats in his life, the latest of which is theater critic. For the last twelve years he has been a theater critic and is currently the treasurer of the American Theatre Critics Association and a member of the International Association of Theatre Critics. He has been in and around the entertainment business for most of his life. He has been an actor, director, and stage hand. He has done lighting, sound design, and set building. He was a radio disk jockey and, while in college ran a television studio and he even knows how to run a 35mm arc lamp projector.

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