Saturday, June 28, 2008

2nd Story Theatre tackles domestic abuse with offbeat Fuddy Meers

01:00 AM EDT on Thursday, May 8, 2008
By Channing Gray

Journal Arts Writer

Paula Faber might as well be speaking a foreign language. In 2nd Story Theatre’s soon-to-open production of Fuddy Meers, Pulitzer Prize winner David Lindsay-Abaire’s offbeat take on domestic abuse, Faber plays a stroke victim suffering from aphasia, a condition that has left her speech garbled.

Her words come out twisted and broken. In a typical moment, Faber’s Gertie says, “Dusha riddle dimsum da my hempoo.”

Faber’s fellow cast members know what that means, because a translation has been provided at the back of the script for the actors. What Gertie was trying to say was, “Just a little something that might help you.”

But the audience won’t have the benefit of a translation. So it’s up to Faber to get the meaning of her distorted phrases across through things like inflection, intonation and the occasional discreet gesture, like pointing to a door. Trying to act out situations like a game of charades would be far too heavy handed.

“It’s been a huge challenge,” said Faber, who met with a speech pathologist and a couple of psychiatrists to prepare for the role.

The first challenge for Faber was just memorizing Gertie’s scrambled utterances. That took extra hours, as she said the lines over and over to her dogs. But just learning the phonetic sound of the words has not been enough, Faber has found. She has had to learn to show the frustration and anger someone like Gertie must feel.

“I spent a lot of time learning my lines as they are written out,” said Faber, who has been acting with 2nd Story since the theater opened in Warren in 2001, “and that has almost been a problem. Now it’s a matter of not making them so accurate and precise. I have to make them sound more realistic.

“Now the challenge is to make it more difficult, so these words are not just flowing out. For Gertie, everything is a struggle.”

That process was addressed last week in rehearsal, as Gertie called the police and tried to alert them that an escaped convict was holed up in her house.

“Isis Geht Maso,” she whispers into the phone, as she tries to say, “This is Gertie Mason.” “Fee cape” (“Philip escaped”). “Eesh ina hiss” (“He’s in the house”).

But her delivery was too straightforward, too much like someone rattling off phrases in another language. Director Ed Shea wanted her to convey more of the struggle and frustration she must feel, as she tried to communicate with people who can’t understand her. He wanted her to chew on the words more, to make the whole process seem more arduous.

Faber said that by the end of rehearsal she was ready to throw the phone down on the floor.

“I can feel my center being given over to that struggle,” said Shea.

“You get right in there with her, and your stomach tightens, your breath quickens and you work with her.”

The trick with portraying Gertie is that she can’t appear “ditzy,” said Shea. This is a woman with her mental faculties intact, but whose speech has been affected.

“She’s not unaware at all,” said Shea. “Halfway through the play, she says I wish I could have said some things when I could, which is a very sweet moment.”

Fuddy Meers (it means “funny mirrors,” as in the body-distorting kind found in funhouses) is Lindsay-Abaire’s first play, written while a protégé of Christopher Durang at Juilliard. His assignment was to bring in 10 pages a week, so he wrote the play like a serialized Dickens novel, leaving cliff-hangers along the way.

It debuted in 1999 at the Manhattan Theatre Club to sold-out audiences and mostly positive critical responses. And it helped establish the playwright as someone with a keen eye for people with extreme afflictions who have had their lives upended.

In Kimberly Akimbo, a teenager suffering from premature aging looks like a 70-year-old woman. Her dad is an alcoholic who works in a gas station, her mother is a pregnant hypochondriac with a foul mouth. In the play, an elderly actress engages in a budding romance with a 16-year-old boy.

Lindsay-Abaire won the Pulitzer last year for Rabbit Hole, which is about a couple grieving the death of their four-year-old son, who was struck by a car.

While it may seem odd, maybe even a little cruel to write a comedy about someone suffering from the effects of a stroke, Lindsay-Abaire sort of specializes in plays in which we find ourselves embarrassed to laugh at the misfortunes of others, but can’t quite help ourselves.

“You’ll laugh your head off,” said Shea, “and then say, ‘I really shouldn’t be laughing at this.’ ”

Gertie is not the only person in this wacky comedy suffering from a medical condition, either. There is Gertie’s daughter Claire, who has a rare form of amnesia. Each morning she wakes as a blank slate, and has to read a book her husband has prepared outlining the high points of her life.

Before long, Claire is kidnapped by a half-blind, half-deaf limping man with a pronounced lisp, who has just escaped from prison and tells Claire that her husband is trying to kill her. He takes her to Gertie’s house along with fellow prisoner Millet, a weirdo with a puppet.

Claire’s husband, Richard, and her drug-addict son, Kenny, eventually show up, along with Heidi, a prison cook who is masquerading as a cop. What follows are moments of mayhem and a raft of revelations.

The play is something of a mystery. It’s only in dribs and drabs that we learn what has happened to these battered and impaired characters. There is a point at which Gertie explains all the sordid details of their lives to Claire, but her speech is so muddled that Claire, who understands most of what her mother says, can’t make it out — nor can the audience. And that’s because at that point in the play, we’re not supposed to know all that’s going on, said Shea. We have to wait to learn Claire’s secret.

Nevertheless, Shea feels the audience will understand most of what Gertie says.

“Very slowly, your ear becomes attuned to that language,” he said, “and you start to understand it. By the end of the play you start to get it.”

Fuddy Meers opens in previews tomorrow and runs through June 8 at 2nd Story Theatre, 28 Market St., Warren. Tickets are $10 for previews (May 9-10), and $25 for all other performances. Call (401) 247-4200.

MORE REVIEWS of what’s playing at area stages: