Do the people we care about most end up hurting us? Can anyone scrape by with more than a minimum amount of dignity? Should we just stay at home and watch television for the rest of our lives? These difficult questions are addressed in Gotham Stage Company's impeccably produced presentation of Eric Houston's Becoming Adele. This one-woman play tracks six years in Brooklyn-ite and movie junkie Adele Scabaglio's new life in Manhattan. In three rooftop soliloquies, we learn that Adele and her husband, Doogie, moved from her parents' house in the boroughs to a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. Adele tells us the story of their marriage, which seems to be one of convenience first and love only as an afterthought.
When Doogie is killed in a car accident (with a prostitute in the passenger seat), Adele finds herself responsible for building a life for their daughter. To complicate things, her relationship with her detached father has turned worse, and soon her mousy mother and senile grandmother come to live with her in the city. From there, Adele must face other hardships, like waiting tables at an upscale Manhattan restaurant and finding a man who really loves her for who she is.
The script for Becoming Adele is honest and funny in its best moments, but overwritten and confusing in its worst. This material is soliloquy in the purest sense: Adele is talking her heart out onstage to the audience, which can make for difficulties in the acting. Rather than having another character (even an "invisible" one) present in the scene, the actress playing Adele must sometimes come up with awkward reasons for talking out loud. For instance, before reflecting on the past six years, she says, "Boy, a lot has changed since I was last up here on the roof six years ago."
There is nothing particularly wrong with this format when it is well written, but a lot of the material is heavy with exposition that spells out every last detail. The play's three acts are set in three different time periods, which requires Adele to do a lot of speaking in the past tense. It might be the big day before Adele's new job, but since she's been hired, that victory has already been won. Throughout the play, we never see Adele making any big decisions or taking action—only reflecting on it.
Thankfully, every other element in the production injects vibrancy and life into the script. The choice of transition music, Antje Ellermann's scenic design, and Victor Maog's direction are all flawlessly executed. The music, which one assumes was selected by sound designer Elizabeth Rhodes, includes performers as diverse as the Beatles and the Cranberries, and like the best film soundtracks, it reflects both older and contemporary sensibilities.
Ellermann must have robbed some poor Upper West Sider of his roof, because the roof on which Adele performs is precise down to the minutest details, like an empty aquarium or sporadic little piles of leaves. Finally, Maog's direction allows all of these elements to work together. Adele interacts with the design elements naturally, as when she sits on a dirty old bucket or is yelled at by an offstage neighbor.
Of course Kimberly Stern, as Adele, must ultimately carry the show. Fortunately, she handles the script with earnestness and charm. Perhaps most impressive is her ability to navigate and enliven the long stretches of exposition. She also realistically evokes a handful of supporting characters through very distinct voices and gestures. Stern's genuine performance compels the audience to care about Adele, which ultimately saves the show from its weaknesses.
Adele is told in the play that the secret to life is to "just do what is in front of you" or to "just keep your mouth shut." Eventually she learns that there is a lot more to making the big decisions. Luckily, Stern, Maog, and all the other members of the production team seem to have learned that lesson too. Becoming Adele is an excellent example of a production exceeding its script. Better yet, it does so with a maximum amount of dignity.