ONSTAGE REVIEW: A Circuitous Trip into the Woods

Karen Hartman's play "SuperTrue," once on a list of noteworthy unproduced scripts by women and trans playwrights, gets its world-premiere presentation at Know Theatre.

click to enlarge Nicole Jeannine Smith in "SuperTrue" - PHOTO: Dan R. Winters Photography
PHOTO: Dan R. Winters Photography
Nicole Jeannine Smith in "SuperTrue"

Karen Hartman’s comedy SuperTrue currently is getting its world premiere at Know Theatre via the National New Play Network. (In fact, it was on a 2015 list of noteworthy unproduced scripts by women and trans playwrights.) In advance publicity about the show, Know’s artistic director Andrew Hungerford stated, “This is a very timely play that centers around dealing with a world that hasn’t turned out the way one expected: How do you cope when plans have gone awry or when confronted with trauma? There are lessons of acceptance and coping in this script that I think are incredibly valuable for the world in which we’re living. And it helps that it’s super funny and delightfully theatrical.”

Staged in Know’s Underground space, repurposed as an expressionistic forest, SuperTrue is the story of a desperate pair of married Gen-Xers who hope a woodland retreat will get their lives back on track. Janelle (Nicole Jeannine Smith) was an idealistic schoolteacher, but a violent trauma has left her damaged and fearful, eager for a fresh start that might involve pregnancy — even though her biological clock is running down. 

Her husband Martin (played by James Creque on opening weekend, then by Derek Snow Jan. 24-Feb. 10) has his own challenges: A one-time inventive programmer, his early work has been appropriated by a greedy company, giving him no credit. Now he’s being passed over.

Janelle’s trauma has resulted in unemployment. To support them, Martin has to keep working in an organization he hates, and he’s rather resentful. He’s gone along with Janelle’s desire to go to the woods to procreate, but he’s torn between several pressing realities — leaving the woods to go to work for a company he hates, dealing with repairs to their roofless, damaged home and secretively developing a new app. 

They yearn for new direction, but paranoia keeps distracting them and the woods are not as peaceful as they had hoped. Janelle is angry at a deer that keeps approaching the cabin. She and Martin are not on the same wavelength regarding the outcome of their sojourn. Neither one is entirely honest with the other. Janelle has drafted a semi-coherent manifesto that culminates in the statement, “Tell the truth.” 

Getting to the truth in Hartman’s spiky, fragmented script is a circuitous journey. As directed by Holly L. Derr, Smith launches into her portrait of Janelle at a fever pitch and hardly slows down. Some dialogue, especially her arguments with Creque’s Martin, is so dense and flies by in such ranting tumults that it’s hard to grasp what is troubling either character.

The story comes into focus in the final moments of the 80-minute piece, offering a kind of hopeful redemption. But it’s at the end of a lot of shouting and oblique philosophizing. 

A third player, puppeteer Elizabeth Chinn Molloy, portrays the invasive deer and a mysterious child who wanders into Janelle’s life while Martin is away at work. (Erika Kate MacDonald has designed the simple, evocative cardboard puppets.) 

Is the child a figment of Janelle’s imagination or a plot device? Her presence injects a real-world intrusion (possibly a comment about immigration) that seems extraneous to the play’s narrative momentum. But between this child and the app “SuperTrue” that Martin has created and designed to help Janelle cope with her trauma, the play does have an ending that, if not entirely happy, seems to be headed that way.

The small stage is extended to the left and right by clotheslines hung with drying laundry — polo shirts, T-shirts and other casual items, all in shades of verdant forest green. They serve as surfaces for washes of Hungerford’s lighting design and Douglas Borntrager’s projections of images that illustrate the progress of Martin’s digital efforts. The cartoonish, two-dimensional cabin hardly seems like a locale where spiritual healing can occur. 

In the Underground’s cramped single-level space, sightlines are blocked for audience members in rear rows because Derr has staged several scenes with actors crouching or sitting on the cabin’s porch.

Hartman has a flair for comic sparring, but Derr has coached the actors to hurtle through dense conversations in ways that provide scarce opportunity for laughter, possibly obscuring the next pithy thought that’s lobbed forth.

SuperTrue deals with some important issues in contemporary life, but this new play would benefit from some pruning, sharper focus and a bit less speed.

SuperTrue, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Feb. 10. More information/tickets: knowtheatre.org.

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