Review: MUCH BETTER – A Play for Our Times (Such as They Are)

MUCH BETTER
A New Play
By Elisabeth Frankel
Directed by Henry Nettleton
Through September 2 2017
Produced by Really-Really Theatre Group
at 12 Ave Arts
1620 12th Avenue
Seattle WA 98122
http://www.really-really.org

Photo: Zoe Burchard

 I must admit to a bit of trepidation about this show: not because it was the first production by a new company, and not because I am unfamiliar with the playwright’s work… but because of the play’s teaser copy.
The central character, Ashley, is diagnosed with a condition called “hyperempathy.” My first thought was that considering the problems plaguing us and our world today, too much empathy seems the opposite of a core challenge.
But then I thought this: to illuminate freedom, examine slavery. To consider equality, examine inequality. And, perhaps, to consider sociopathy…
Well, in part, yes. And lots more.
In what makes the play only slightly speculative and slightly futuristic, a new therapy called Neuroclear, identified as “plastic surgery for the personality,” is available, and Ashley submits to it, to moderate, and then significantly modify, her emotional responses and her ability to feel. We get to see the traps of co-dependency and hypersensitivity, the pitfalls of the “quick-fix” mentality that modern culture and especially modern medicine offer, and a reflection on what makes life worth living. All in a rapid-fire 75 minutes, powered by tight direction and rich performances.
As Ashley, Alysha Curry has the heaviest lifting to do. Not only is she on stage for the entire play, but she is called on to carry off not only a rich range of emotions but more trickily, the widest variety of emotional dynamic range. At the outset the victim of her feelings of love, pain, rage, envy, and sadness, she must take step after step down the trail toward no feeling at all, and ultimately, to make the difficult decision of whether we are hindered by our feelings or defined by them. And at no time on the journey did the feelings seem forced or out of scale… except when meant to. (I’m reminded of the line of questionable provenance about “Authenticity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”)
Lamar Legend’s Dr. Keith is the agent of change; late in the play, his presence and his motivation deepens, as we learn more about his connection to Neuroclear. He is the embodiment of the quick fix here, technology as the solution to all of our problems.
As Ashley’s childhood friend with whom she has had a rocky relationship, Nick Ferrucci’s Simon comes and goes and returns with a wrong place/wrong time/wrong feelings path through her life: as he learns what he finds to be the great truth of Ashley, it has turned more into what Stephen Colbert dubbed “truthiness.”
Morgan, her co-worker played by Ali Lawrence, is her foil through the course of her transformations, and, like Simon, Morgan comes to an understanding of her friend that is perhaps a difficult thing we learn about all of ours: not that we love them warts and all, but that we love their warts, in some ways. most.
Garrison Whaley-Sharp plays a few smaller roles; his turn as the yoga instructor is wonderfully open and honest, free of the irony that could have turned it into snark about privilege.
The design of the show is both tight and elegant, with the black box theatre featuring a set of smaller black boxes that double as bins, desks, and even a subway train. The lighting is effective, and the sound and projections that serve as set, screen, crisis, and therapy strong. My sole sound note is one that is not uncommon in black boxes with three-side seating: there are moments when subtle or quick speaking can result in words not being as clear as possible from seats that do not face the actor’s face.
What is our life when we do not have a dragon to chase us? Is it life or imitation? Frankel clearly has a position, and the director and cast lay it out clearly and with great craft.

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