The ambiguity of adulthood takes center stage in Simon Stephens's play Harper Regan, at the Atlantic Theater Company. This play mines the penumbras of adult relationships but ultimately questions of truth, lies, and whether we can ever really know each other becomes the focus. A combination of a rich text and smart direction make this production an intellectual banquet.
Stephens is a prolific playwright in the United Kingdom but feels quite unknown in the U.S. His 2012 play Three Kingdoms launched a thousand blog posts of opinions earlier this year-- see posts by Andrew Haydon, Matt Trueman, Maddy Costa, Catherine Love for a start (see other reviews, discussions they link to in their posts). It was such a lively controversy that I felt compelled to see Stephens work to see what all the fuss was about.* His only recent New York production was Bluebird at the Atlantic last season with Simon Russell Beale which sold out very quickly and I missed out on tickets. So I was glad I caught his searing Morning at the Edinburgh Fringe and his adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time through NTLive. But now having seen a few different works by Stephens I find his his work defies easy categorization. Yet, all have been worth the time.
Harper Regan (Mary McCann) is a 40-something woman whose father is ill. Despite her boss threatening her job if she takes some time off and without telling her husband Seth (Gareth Saxe) or teenage daughter Sarah (Madeleine Martin), she impulsively decides to go home to see her father before it is too late. She is estranged from her divorced parents and when she finally sees her mother (Mary Beth Peil) she confronts her about the reasons for this estrangement. Peppered throughout her unexpected journey are strangers who she confides in, clings to, and engages with. But there is something in her past that haunts her and this unexpected chapter in her life seems to be directly linked to that incident.
Striking about this production is the smart and measured direction by Gaye Taylor Upchurch. I was taken with the idea of characters physically molding the space by moving the layers of the set into position. Not merely moving props or set pieces, here the lit actors touch panels which start out as walls and end as floors and physically set the stage for each scene and breaking down the space (the clever scenic design is by Rachel Hauck who has also done the excellent design for Regrets and An Iliad). Taylor Upchurch stages extreme gaps between characters in scenes together--acting like physical pauses between two people engaged in conversation. At other times they are on top of each other with intense, forced intimacy. Rather than this being inconsistent or uneven, this intentional choice supports and emphasizes Harper’s oscillating personality. Harper early on says “You think you know where you are then…”, and her voice drifts off. She is losing her footing and the direction, costuming, and performance choices all serve this well.
Despite her efforts to make it home, she fails to reach her father before he dies. The death of a parent can be a watershed moment for anyone but it can illuminate quite harshly the loss of childhood. For Harper, her father’s death drives her to shed some of her grounded adult attributes and adopt flighty teenage behaviors—she’s impulsive, self-absorbed. She says to a man she picks up on the internet, “I’m not really in my body” whilst wearing the leather jacket she stole off another man earlier that day. These traits were there even before her father died but something more reckless is unleashed in her grief.
As anyone who was once a teenager knows, adulthood creeps in and reality and truth are inevitable. McCann’s Harper is pleasant and detached. She is convincing as a woman who is losing touch but keeping much of that turmoil and chaos below the surface. I think it could read to some as a disconnected performance but I believe that is what it called for. I don’t think she reached the emotional climax needed in the scene with her mother but you see McCann’s Harper change as the play moves forward and though that change is subtle I was lured in. Her vacant smile and inviting exterior was intentionally misleading. The play calls for a large supporting cast where most characters only get a scene or two. But I felt like even the smaller roles were well cast. Mahira Kakkar as the depressed hospital worker, Christopher Innvar the internet pick-up, and Gareth Saxe as Harper’s husband were stand-outs for me.
Taylor Upchurch and Stephens have created a vivid, real world platform but this story takes reality and suspends and extenuates it. Like the physical spaces between the characters, time and emotions seem stretched (even lighting cues accentuated this). It may take place over the course of a few days but we feel the weight of this one weekend on this family and this woman. Some commentators have spoken of theme of mothers and daughters in the work. Although there are clear parallels between Harper and her mother and Harper and her daughter, I thought the piece could be read a lot more generally to all relationships. When trust in a relationship is broken and brutal honesty becomes unleashed, whether out of love, or to punish someone, speaking the truth of everything (without buffers or filters) is unsettling whether it is between mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, or the encounters of strangers. Such is adulthood, when that which we don't want to hear must be heard.
* A couple of years ago I did manage to see A Thousand Explosions in the
Sky (which Stephens wrote in collaboration with David Eldridge and Robert
Holman) in London but my main recollection is the school group in the theater who
was unprepared for male frontal nudity and the school teacher who was freaking out after because she was going to have to explain the incident to the parents. But the theme of family, buried truths, and confrontation was certainly present in that work.