Watching Amy Staats in her solo show, Cat-her-in-e, is like watching an entire collection of home movies squeezed into one body. Playing all of her relatives, she shrinks into shy, scared children, pulls her neck back to become an awkward, tall teen, and opens her eyes and arms to become a booming stepmom. More important than the skilled shape-shifting, however, is the overwhelming layer of nostalgia that hovers over Staats's performance. As it follows Amy's (her character's name) early reverence and later gratitude for her older cousin, Catherine, Staats's play is literally a thank you card: it begins and ends as she perches in front of a computer, writing to thank Catherine for her wedding gift.
Narrating one's youth is a familiar dramatic formula with a successful history, ranging from A Christmas Story to The Wonder Years. With that in mind, Staats isn't embarking on a particularly innovative or challenging mission. Hindsight almost guarantees hilarity and insight. Perhaps this is why the show is far more successful in its childhood portions. When everyone grows up, the play loses its pace and its place a bit.
We meet Catherine, a reclusive and aggressive type with a penchant for imaginative games and stories, when a 4-year-old Amy visits her relatives for Christmas. Catherine is 12 and not exactly an inspiring personality: she cheats at the Barbie Olympics and chases after her young cousins' dolls with a toy's severed head.
Nonetheless, the young Amy and her 5-year-old sister, Susannah, are obsessed with their older cousin and the schemes she weaves. They beg her to play and bait her to add more unusual details to her tales. The show is fueled by what is either Staats's fabulous memory or meticulous attention to fabricating details. The rules and intricacies of every game are explained to comical and touching effect, while her reminiscing zeroes in on the slightest sights and sounds of her youth.
Staats has a knack for nailing personal quirks and expressions, and it comes through in her multiple roles. To distinguish between family members, she assigns each one a particular (and usually unflatteringly funny) body language. It would be mere ventriloquism, however, if Staats just stuck to these usual postures. Instead, she takes the impressions a step further and ages each character as time goes on. Slightly, a sister's boyish slouching straightens, her own squeaky voice clears up, and her aunt's tight-faced squint seems to gradually pull her skin further and further inward.
With its canary-yellow color, boxy outline, and cinched empire waist, Staats's dress is both childish and womanly at the same time, allowing her to jump from Aunt Anne to a baby version of herself in a beat. Usually, the older women place their hands on their hips in some way, accentuating a shapelier figure, while the kids awkwardly slump in their bodies.
Of course, as the characters grow up, talk of marriages and careers replaces playtime. While Amy has started acting in New York and has seen some success, a thirty-something Catherine is living alone with her cats and still trying to put a medical school application together.
When an adult Amy invites herself over to her aunt's house after not visiting for five years, she feels awkward and unwelcome. "I realize I am trespassing," she says. The statement raises an interesting question: is the play itself a violation of privacy? While thanking her older cousin, Staats makes the contrast between Amy's exciting city life and Catherine's plateau so obvious that the resulting portrait of her cousin is far from flattering.
Ironically, the play seems most condescending when Amy tries to express her gratitude. The script sometimes treats her success as Catherine's biggest accomplishment. She explains that "61% of the things I've done in my life have been influenced by you."
This self-indulgence is the play's biggest flaw. It's reminiscent of the adage: "Enough about me. What do you think about me?" The audience is supposed to care about Catherine, but she fades in and out of the picture too much for us to truly understand her. Instead, we are left with a coming-of-age story that is mostly about Amy. It's an entertaining and often smart piece of theater, but perhaps Cat-her-in-e is the wrong title.