Pictured: Ben Auxier and Peggy Friesen. Photo by Brian Paulette.
Review: SHEARWATER at The Living Room Theatre
By Marie Warner
The Living Room Theatre presents SHEARWATER as part of the fourth annual Writer’s Den series. The Writer’s Den conducts staged readings of works by Kansas City playwrights. SHEARWATER marks the expansion from reading to workshop production, offering playwright Victor Wishna the opportunity to see his work on its feet. While the production elements are limited and the script is still in the process of changing, SHEARWATER did not feel like a workshop. This is a fully formed show.
SHEARWATER centers on a young writer named Ben, who is called to work on a project with Esther Lindman, the widow of a prolific Abstract Expressionist painter. Ben is at a crossroads in his career and Esther’s offer to collaborate on her memoir seems too good to be true. Esther is wealthy, eccentric, and notorious for saying exactly what is on her mind. Soon, Ben is immersed in Esther’s past and her complicated relationship with her husband and his art.
The glamor and complexity of Esther’s life are contrasted with the relationship of Ben and his wife Lizzie as they navigate their own challenges. Ultimately, a revelation from Esther forces Ben and Lizzie to grapple with the nature of truth itself and its implications in their own lives.
Victor Wishna’s writing really flows, and the structure of the play worked perfectly, establishing the characters early on and then working to reveal the true conflicts at the heart of the play. Wishna’s dialogue is fresh and organic and manages to feel very current without resorting to being trendy.
Peggy Friesen is excellent as Esther. Her poise and focus help to create a believable, multi-faceted character. As an audience, we join Ben in never knowing quite where we stand with Esther. Peggy Friesen masters the fine line Esther walks between self-revelation and self-preservation. As Ben and Lizzie, Ben Auxier and Ellen Kirk’s scenes provide a contrast to the more formal and combative scenes elsewhere between Esther and Ben. Auxier and Kirk have great chemistry and the scenes in their apartment were relatable and natural. Auxier brings real weight and compassion to his scenes with Esther, particularly in the second act.
I found all three characters to be believable and interesting, but a particular moment bothered me. Victor Wishna has created multi-dimensional characters, but in a scene between Lizzie and Ben in the second act, valid concerns from Lizzie were made to feel like the rantings of the ultimate stereotypical jealous wife. This felt out of step with the Lizzie we see throughout the rest of the play and only served to undercut the legitimacy of her views.
The setting of SHEARWATER is the palatial, art-filled New York apartment of Esther Lindman, and the modest home of Ben and Lizzie. While the script allows for the chance to create an impressive set which would display the wealth and status of Esther more explicitly, it isn’t necessary. The characters and plot are captivating enough that I found that I did not miss seeing an elaborate set.
One of the major themes of SHEARWATER is the nature of truth. As our world is inundated with fake news and “alternative facts,” the nature and value of truth is something many of us are wrestling with. Do perspective and context change what truth is? Is truth relative? SHEARWATER asks these questions and more and manages to mostly avoid wallowing in the existential mire. SHEARWATER is a smart, funny and affecting play, and I am interested to see where it goes from here.