Recent Tragic Events
Written by Craig Wright, Directed by Bridget Kathleen O'Leary; Sound Designer, Chris Larson; Stage Manager, Vawnya Nichols; Light Designer, PJ Strachman; Props Designer/Set Consultant, Julie Tideman; Costume Designer, Emily Woods Hogue; House Managers, Jen O'Connor/Melissa Barker
Ensemble: Aimee Rose Ranger (Waverly), Alejandro Simoes (Andrew), Nathaniel Gundy (Ron), Meg Taintor (Nancy)
Performances through March 24 by Whistler in the Dark Theatre at The Factory Theatre, 791 Tremont Street, Boston, MA; Box Office 800-838-3006 or www.whistlerinthedark.com
Life changed in America on September 11, 2001. On September 10, we thought and felt and behaved as we always had; on September 12, we stumbled through our collective, mind-numbing haze, struggling to cope and figure out the shape of our new reality. As Waverly, the protagonist in Recent Tragic Events, says, "I used to wake up and say 'What am I gonna do?' And now, it's 'What's gonna happen to me?'" In that one brief spit of dialogue, playwright Craig Wright encapsulates the new American way of life that we have been muddling through for more than a decade. His 2002 dark, tragi-comic play focuses on a young woman in Minneapolis experiencing the unlikeliest of blind dates while she awaits word from her identical twin sister in New York City.
Whistler in the Dark Theatre and Director Bridget Kathleen O'Leary make excellent use of the intimate Factory Theatre space to create tension and palpable discomfort even though there is little doubt about the outcome of Wright's story. Certainly the watershed aspect of the date in question brings up feelings and memories for anyone old enough to have truly grasped the ramifications of that shattering event. These underlying emotions lay the foundation for how the audience will receive the play, but Wright narrows the scope to consider primarily how it all affected the four people onstage and those who cast their unseen presence into their midst. Although they do not appear, the aura of Waverly's mother (via numerous telephone calls) and sister hover throughout the entire play, further disrupting what can best be described as a fractured get-together.
In addition to putting his characters under a microscope to observe their reactions and coping skills, Wright uses the two acts of Recent Tragic Events to argue both sides of a debate about fate versus free will. In Act One, the frequent sounding of a bell offstage indicates moments when the actors portray a scene in one of two ways, based on the result of a coin toss prior to the show. This device poses the "what if" questions we always ask ourselves after a crisis or an accident. We've all heard a multitude of personal stories about someone who was supposed to be on one of the airplanes, or who never worked in the World Trade Center, but had a meeting there on 9/11, or the guy who missed work in one of the towers because his car broke down. Like Pavlov's dog, the audience is conditioned to imagine how things may have played out differently each time the bell rings, but it happens too often, sometimes with only seconds between two of the cues. What might have been an interesting conceit in the abstract becomes an annoyance in the actual because Wright overdoes it.
After intermission, the audience is advised that the bell will no longer be heard and all of the action happens as scripted, as it is meant to be. Yet, during this act when it appears that everything is predestined, the characters become embroiled in a lengthy discussion about free will and whether or not they believe in it. Ironically, the most ardent proponent of her belief that she is free is the character represented by a sock puppet. It may make you laugh, but it will surely make you think. Wright seems to be saying that the world may be beyond our control, but we do have the freedom to think and feel whatever we want.
Art imitates life with the casting of the luminous Aimee Rose Ranger in the role of Waverly. Ranger has an identical twin sister and understands on a cellular level what her character goes through as she tries to deal with the very real possibility that her sister Wendy may be dead. The role requires the actress to walk a tightrope between dread and denial, and Ranger portrays both aspects with aplomb. When the evening begins, she is fresh-faced and eager to get to know her blind date Andrew (Alejandro Simoes) when they discover their shared love of books and esoteric authors. As the television in the corner continually streams images of "the day after," Waverly tunes in and out to the news. With trembling chin and fear in her eyes, Ranger's face reflects her growing anxiety.