Handle With Care

Substitution, the first offering from Playwrights Realm, a new producing organization, is an honorable if imperfect inaugural show. Artistic directors John Dias and Katherine Kovner have found a playwright, Anton Dudley, with a poetic sensibility and a gift for language, particularly in his monologues, and some skill at creating interesting characters. But no playwright is without flaws, and Dudley’s virtues cannot disguise some implausible plotting. Jan Maxwell plays a woman known only as Calvin’s Mom, and it’s clear from her first monologue that she is deeply bereft and bewildered after her 16-year-old son has been killed, along with many other students, on a school field trip. Maxwell plumbs the agony of Mom, the resentment and anger and loneliness, all of which are exacerbated when she runs into Paul, a substitute teacher who had Calvin in his class. In the impossible role of Paul, Kieran Campion manages to create a character who is both fascinating and frustrating. Jittery and logorrheic and frequently juvenile, but earnest and boyishly charming, Paul is unbelievable as an adult and yet convincing as an impulsive, damaged man-child.

Two additional characters are Jule (Shana Dowdeswell) and Dax (Brandon Espinoza). They appear in a small upper aperture on Tom Gleeson’s minimal but serviceable set, whose only furniture is a desk and chair and whose walls are shades of blue, to suggest the lake that plays a crucial part in the story. Dressed in the costumes of superheroes of their own devising (actually, they’re by Theresa Squire), Jule is Winged Girl and Dax is Merboy, and as Dudley’s play unfolds it becomes clear that they are part of the field trip that Calvin is on, and that one of them just may have engineered the explosion that sank their boat and killed them and Calvin. Dax and Jule never interact with Paul and Mom, however: Dudley is telling parallel stories that only intersect at the explosion.

The title, Substitution, may apply to the personae of the superheroes that Dax and Jule assume, or to Paul’s teaching status, or to his attempt to become an emotional substitute for Calvin in Mom’s life, or to a figurine that Paul treasures because it reminds him of Calvin. Director Kovner keeps all those questions open as she guides the actors through the awkward plotting.

Dudley is writing, in part, about the fragility of life and the acceptance of death. Says Dax to Jule: “That’s the part I hate—that moment of no turning back?—that little sound, so fast you might not’ve even heard it and it’s like—wuh oh!—no more choices, something final happened. A little death.” Their conversation preceding the explosion is in counterpoint to the aftermath that Mom and Paul must deal with.

The world of the characters, however, stretches credibility. In what high school is ethics a semester-long class, like history? How would a teacher of that ethics class be able to justify to parents a boat ride on a lake, with the students dressed up as superheroes—never mind to a school board that presumably would fund the outing? Would school chaperones allow a student to go on the trip bare-chested, as Dax is, and especially on water? Even Jule is concerned about his catching cold—surely school officials would be?

An even more bizarre notion is that a person with Paul’s obvious instability would be hired as a substitute teacher and be promoted within weeks to assistant principal. (Apparently neither Dudley nor Kovner has heard of seniority or teachers’ unions.) "You’re a child yourself,” Mom tells him, and indeed, Paul’s relationship to Calvin is that of a child who forms strong attachments suddenly.

In spite of such flaws, the acting is committed and excellent. Brandon Espinoza as Dax captures youth’s sense of indestructibility, and Shana Dowdeswell is fine as the unsettling Jule, full of adolescent adoration for the unsuspecting Dax. Mom and Paul eventually bond as well, although a scene in which Paul, stripped to his briefs, performs drunken calisthenics for her on their first “date,” is plain preposterous.

Nonetheless, they all manage to create characters that hold one's interest. Whether that is an indication of Dudley’s raw talent or of the supreme skills of the players may not be answered until more of his work is seen. Certainly The Playwrights Realm has given him an auspicious beginning.

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