Friday, January 11, 2019

A mother's pain, baked to a turn: "Apples in Winter" opens the 2019 portion of Phoenix Theatre's season

Phoenix Theatre marketing of its latest production from the National New Play Network, with which it's been affiliated for many years, reaches out well beyond the essence of "Apples in Winter."

Ingredients ranged before her, Miriam prepares to make her last apple pie.
Understandably, the company is ramping up efforts to have mainstream appeal by emphasizing the resonance its productions may have beyond traditional theater fans. So Jennifer Fawcett's one-act, one-actor drama speaks with relevance to the opioid crisis (or is it an epidemic?), but the cost to society is narrowed to prismatic focus here. The wider meaning must be supplied by those in attendance, including personal reflection on the unanticipated costs of parenting, which usually fall far short of dealing with a son's horrific act and subsequent reputation as a monster.

One young man's addiction is reflected through his mother's suffering as she bakes an apple pie for him in the kitchen of the prison where he's on death row. Crazed by the lack of money for drugs and the desperation addicts often feel to avoid crashing, he brutally murdered two teens in an isolated parking lot at night.

It is helpful to approach "Apples in Winter" as a detailed examination of private family trauma. This is not "theater of ideas," nor is it to be tossed into a social-problems basket. In the preview performance Thursday night in the Phoenix's Basile black-box theater, it struck me as a severely controlled study, skillfully paced and never offhand about its core meaning.

The range of Jan Lucas' portrayal of Miriam is inseparable from the strong impression "Apples in Winter" makes. Directed by Jolene Mentink Moffatt, Lucas enters the scene (designed by Daniel Uhde) with the air of someone trying to shoulder a family burden in a strange setting: a stainless-steel kitchen with a distinctively undomestic look. The bright lighting (effectively varied as we learn about Miriam's pain in detail) suggests that the visitor's regard for order and ritual will be upheld. Her pride as a pie maker will make an effective cover for her suffering — up to a point.

The emotional depths are hidden at first, though we are quickly aware that Miriam brings severely mixed feelings  to the task. The kitchen knife chained to the table set out for her symbolizes much more than is immediately apparent. Admirable in their detail were all of the actor's enigmatic pauses, as well as Miriam's  careful attention to procedure and quasi-instructional description of pie-making. She stops before the preheated oven, her back to us. She pauses stock-still before washing her hands. The atmosphere of ritual, which the character praises at several points, was eloquently underlined by Lucas' movements. 

When the emotional import is heightened, the language remains plain and close to expressing Miriam's bond with her son, her memories of the apple tree she had brought back to life and from which her annual harvest always yielded an apple pie, and her searing ruminations on the event that ruined Robert's life and hers within a few moments.

Fawcett has adhered to a sturdy minimalism in setting out the story. Miriam's late husband, Larry, is reduced to an emblem of the demanding, punitive father. There are apparently no other children.  Robert's response to his mother's apple pies, from 5 years old on, is premonitory: The pleasure center of his brain was intensely active, and would clearly need more than apple pies (baked with love, Miriam reminds us) to be satisfied in the long run. Through her staggered recollections, other family members varied in their degrees of support after the crime; communications from parents of the two victims displayed a mirrored range of prayerfulness and imprecation. The plague of media attention amplified on the mother's nerves every dire consequence of crime and punishment.

Near the end, a mother's love is nearly smothered by an outburst of anger at her son. The height of her indignation is directed toward all those, mainly strangers, who have condemned and misrepresented her. Lucas' crescendo of blame and defensiveness was well-modulated Thursday. It was of a piece with the sustained attention to duty and detail Miriam puts foremost upon her initial appearance.

By the end, we have seen all sides of this character and her heartbreak. The completed pie in front of her, she announces to the invisible prison staff: "I'm done." It's a perfect finish, like the pie itself, which is also done. It's a wonderful sound, with a finality much more definite than "finished."

What's done is done, we sometimes say. We can hear in the repeated word the firm shutting of prison doors, the flat line on the device that will confirm a condemned man's death, and the difficult shuttering of a harvested-out home miles away. "I'm done," Miriam repeats as the lights fade.

[Photo by Zach Rosing]