There’s a great story in the program of how the play Nuts took Santa Rosa by storm in 1983 when presented by the new Actors Theatre in a downtown storefront. It’s a warm tale of a populace hungry for meaningful art, rewarding a fledgling theatre company with sold-out performances and acclaim. Left Edge Theatre, the later stepchild of that same group, chose to revive Nuts, defying their own rules to share a play about rules-breaking, fitting in the context of their current season.
In a nutshell, Claudia Draper (in a terrific performance by Heather Gordon) must prove she is sane enough to stand trial for the charge of manslaughter, having been committed to Bellevue mental hospital by her parents and the State of New York. In this somewhat informal hearing, she’s guilty of insanity until she proves otherwise, in hopes of getting to a trial where she’ll be innocent until proven guilty. Aided by defense attorney Aaron Levinsky (disarmingly low-key and cunning David Yen), whom she doesn’t necessarily trust, she churns her defiant, in-your-face way through the hearing, desperate to keep power over her own life.
The dispassionate judge (Dwayne Stincelli), staunch state’s attorney (Chris Schloemp), and arrogant psychiatrist (Peter T. Downey) sternly represent the norms and rules that presumably form the glue of civilized society. Claudia’s estranged parents (Bonnie Jean Shelton and Dodds Delzell) also stand as social pillars, but grapple with their own demons in pursuit of a palatable outcome regarding their incomprehensible daughter. Scott Wagman as bailiff Harry and Cindy Brillhart-Trueas the Recorder round out the ensemble of courtroom officials.
Turns out Claudia’s career as a high-priced “call girl” figures in the mix— is the commitment a move by embarrassed parents to avoid public shame? Does the State deem her occupation in itself a sign of mental imbalance? Does her status as an upper-class white woman trigger alarms (and disgust) in the men who now stand as authorities over her future? When circumstances from her past are revealed, should those color the decision, or justify the need for “treatment”?
Unfortunately, despite a good cast and production values, the play that felt edgy and even controversial in 1983 now feels mundane and dated, having lost its shock value and currency. The stakes just don’t feel high enough anymore. The first two acts move at tepid pace, barely registering the requisite peaks for dramatic revelations and recriminations. Some of the social mores the play examines no longer exist, and the #metoo theme remains on the sidelines.
It’s not until act three, when Claudia takes the stand, that the play kicks into higher gear, relying on the star’s performance to galvanize the moral dilemma into something worth our consideration. Gordon is the real deal here, providing a first-rate portrayal of a difficult, contentious character. Her impassioned sparring with the court and nuanced exchanges with parents allow us to see the inherent debate of the play and its quarrels with so-called blind justice.
Director Joe Winkler was unable to surmount the play’s datedness and pacing issues, but manages a sharper focus in act three. Argo Thompson’s courtroom set utilizes the entire theatre space, effectively including the audience in the proceedings, aided by April George’s lighting design. Costumes by Sandra Ish capture 1979, although a red suit seems glaringly out of the palette.
Stick around for act three to be rewarded with a star turn, and then you can discuss the pros and cons of rules-breaking over post-show cocktails.
By Tom Topor. Presented by Left Edge Theatre through Sept. 29, 2019
Thu/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm, Sun at 2:00pm
Tickets: $15-42; Thursday discount
Photos by Katie Kelley