In the aftermath of a miscarriage, Emma (Marjolaine Whittlesey) and her fiancé Kip (Chris Davis) must contend with their loss, with their own hearts, and – especially trying, sometimes – with other people’s help. A stranger writes to Emma comparing her lost child to the death of a dog. Kip’s tone-deaf, type-A sister Lisa (Danielle Slavick) hovers by the hospital bed and kibitzes. The physician assistant, Dave (David Mason), is jaded and monosyllabic. It’s all so absurd that it must also be funny, in Brenda Withers’ String Around My Finger, the winner of Portland Stage Company’s 2015 Clauder Competition. Having gone through a workshop process with PSC artists, String is in production now on the mainstage, under the direction of Sally Wood.
That we're in a hospital is conspicuous at all times in Anita Stewart’s marvelous modular set, a system of moving walls that rearrange to form several hospital settings, colored an institutional robin’s-egg blue. Even as we shift between specific locations – Emma’s room, hallways, a nurse’s station, a chapel – other parts of the hospital often remain visible through gaps between the walls. It’s a brilliant design for conveying both the general labyrinthine chaos of a medical institution and the constant presence of one particular person in a particular room, no matter where you are in the building.
That person in our story is johnny-garbed, often bed-bound, and healing tenderly, in both senses of the word. Lovely Whittlesey portrays a young woman with the empathy to keep it together for the sake of those around her, even as just beneath that, as her eyes and self-cradling show us, she processes a complex hurt. Emma’s humor is a soft, warm balm; and the tone of her choked-but-kind “Hi!”, as she greets Lisa, says much about her inherent graciousness. These are endearing characterizations, and Whittlesey is even more affecting when Emma goes deep, as in a very fine, carefully calibrated monologue about her fears she was to blame in the death of their child.
About Emma’s relationship with Kip, we know little. Davis gives him clear affection and good-natured Everyman devotion, but also, often, a hint of remove. His regular-guy plain speech and his hoodie contrast well with his hyper-verbal, meticulously dressed sister, whose over-the-top energy Slavick sustains admirably and with jittery physicality. As the other comedic character, Mason’s beleaguered physician assistant is solidly, amusingly laconic, then relents in small moments: listen for how quietly but completely his voice transforms when Kip asks about the sex of their dead child. And in a luminous, too-brief appearance, a purple-swathed Lisa Stathoplos plays the show’s requisite sage – a free spirit in a wheelchair who figuratively and literally sings, to a bemused Lisa, about why a hospital needs music.
Involved only obliquely and without much follow through, Stathoplos’ character feels like a cameo role, and elsewhere, too, the script feels a little broad. We know little of the characters beyond what happens in real-time, and the script touches on so many interrelated tensions – loss and miscarriage, the financial and procedural indignities of the health care system, Kip’s relationship with his sister and to Emma – that for a while the show’s focus feels a little fuzzy.
Where String succeeds best as a script is in its high-spirited empathy and in the bravery of its eventual ambivalence. PSC’s production, with its strong cast and striking design, skillfully conjures the greys that are both a product of grief and a lightening of its dark.
String Around My Finger | By Brenda Withers; directed by Sally Wood; produced by Portland Stage | Through April 23 |www.portlandstage.org.
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