There is something eager and earnest about Tin Lily’s production of Fefu and her Friends . Maria Irene Fornes’ provocative and challenging play explores the private and public dynamics of a group of women, their personal and collective joys and struggles. I am not intimately familiar with this play: Tin Lily’s production was my introduction to it. I gleaned that Fefu and Her Friends is a challenging piece of text with a multitude of plots and subtext, riddled with moments of lyrical unreality. However, in Tin Lily’s production, much of what it is attempting to do and say is lost on me. Despite earnest intentions, the cast and creative team of Tin Lily’s Fefu do not seem to fully understand the play they are producing, and therefore, neither do I. Fefu and her Friends is set on a day in 1935 in Fefu’s home, where a group of women are assembling to plan a fundraising event. The play has an interesting structure: while the first and third acts are basically straightforward, the second act is unique. The first act takes place in Fefu’s living room and introduces us to the eight women and their general relationships to one another. In the second act, four scenes occur at once in four different locations in the theater, or four different “rooms” in Fefu’s house. The audience splits into small groups and moves from room to room, viewing each scene in turn. These scenes are more intimate and revealing. The third act brings us back to Fefu’s living room and the big group, where the intimate revelations of the previous scenes seep into the public space, causing a kind of tragic unraveling.
The lack of clarity in the piece comes through most clearly in individual performances. Tai Verley’s Fefu is muddled and erratic. I feel little empathy for Fefu, because I do not understand her as a character, and I wonder if Verley does, either. Nora Williams, who plays Julia, a woman in a wheelchair with a dark past and prone to hallucinations, leans too far into the character’s meakness and comes off as dull. I am generally more impressed with the supporting actors. Kyle Williams, in particular, is an excellent Paula: humorous, endearingly quirky and uncertain. However, even she goes through moments where it seems as though she is unsure why her character is saying what she is saying. I found myself wishing they, or their director, had spent more time attempting to understand the text and characters.
Tin Lily’s production of Fefu is staged at the Center for Performance Research, a space in Williamsburg that is better equiped for art installations than theater. There is little flexibility in terms of lighting. All instruments are exactly the same: the small, ungelled lights often seen in gallery spaces, and they do little more than light up the room. At several moments, the play slips somewhat jarringly into other realities: hallucinations, dreams, poetry, and lyrical monologues that feel very different from the majority of the text. These moments would have been well served by atmospheric changes: shifts in lighting and sound. Tin Lily Productions attempts this at one or two moments, but the equipment at their disposal proves inadequate, and the moments fall short.
Fefu is not without strengths. Joshua David Bishop’s set is simple and flexible, evoking the art deco style of the period with geometric shapes and the absence of frills. It works well in the space, which is set up in a thrust configuration. The backs of the couch pieces are empty frames that one can see through, so they never block the audiences’ vision. The director, Jillian Johnson, takes care to stage scenes in such a way that the entire audience gets a good set of stage pictures: a noteworthy feat, with a large cast in a small space.
If nothing else, the play presents a truthful portrait of intimacy between women. One of the best scenes is a water fight that takes place on and off stage in Act Three amidst bursts of giggles and shouts, a joyful study in ordered chaos.
The joys of female friendship are perhaps under-portrayed in contemporary American theater, and it is gratifying to see them explored in Tin Lily’s Fefu. However, I think Fornes is saying much more about womens’ lives than this production brings to light. Further, it is unclear to me what this play, written in the 1970’s about a group of women in the 1930’s, has to offer an audience in 2010, and this, in my opinion, is the biggest failing of the production. Tin Lily Productions is an energetic company, no doubt, but it needs to focus its energy and say something clear and specific, if it wants to make any sort of impact.