Rachel Cognata and Kippy Goldfarb in REALLY (photo by Paul Fox)
Really – Written by Jackie Sibblies Drury; Directed by Shawn LaCount; Costume Design by Amanda Mujica; Lighting Design by Jason Fok Scenic & Properties Design by Ben Lieberson; Sound Design by Lee Schuna. Presented by Company One Theatre in Partnership with Matter & Light Fine Art, a gallery in SoWa, 450 Harrison Ave., Boston through March 12.
There’s a touchingly beautiful song by Jackson Browne called “Fountain of Sorrow,” which begins with the songwriter stumbling across some photographs of an old girlfriend and remembering what their time together was like. In the song, he’s struck by one of the pictures of her that he knows she may not have liked as much as the others, but that showed her “true” spirit, including a “a trace of sorrow in (her) eyes” – that forces him to realize “what I was seeing wasn’t what was happening at all” in the relationship.
So while a photograph can capture a single moment for eternity, does that image really tell the whole story? And is what is captured by the camera even accurate if the subject (or photographer) is trying to influence what is portrayed in the shot? Those may (or may not) be the points of Company One’s thought-provoking production of the New England premiere of “Really”, by playwright Jackie Sibblies Drury – who certainly leaves a good deal to individual interpretation by play’s end.
As Girlfriend, the lover of the deceased Calvin – who was a rising star in the photography world – tells Calvin’s Mother (whom she is shooting a portrait of at the couple’s studio following his death), “I think it might be difficult to actually take the photograph of what you’re picturing.” Which is true, because what we want (or choose) to see isn’t necessarily grounded in truth.
As the play opens, Mother – a 60ish prototypical WASPy New Yorker – has come to the studio, ostensibly to pose for the photographic portrait, but more likely with the intent of trying to make sense of the death of her son or to gain some understanding of the “other” woman in his life. Girlfriend (Rachel Cognata) is an ethereally beautiful twenty-something African-American woman, who like Calvin, is a photographer. Mother (brilliantly played by Kippy Goldfarb) is a study in gross discomfort, as her attempts at making small talk with Girlfriend results in a rapid-fire series of inappropriately invasive questions about Girlfriend’s finances and dating status. Girlfriend remains mostly silent throughout the clumsy attempt at dialogue, setting up lights and experimenting with different camera angles as Mother prattles on as a way of coping with her unbearable uneasiness.
The action then rather seamlessly shifts to to the day when Calvin and Girlfriend first met (as Mother sits quietly in place) and we get a quick thumbnail sketch of what the couple’s relationship may have been like. We learn through this and subsequent vignettes that – like many artists – Calvin is essentially a narcissist, unable to see much of the world outside of himself. He is also alternately domineering and condescending, praising Girlfriend primarily for her extraordinary beauty in one moment then immediately fault-finding as a way to keep her self-esteem at floor level. Girlfriend is painfully aware that she is a far less talented photographer than Calvin, perhaps because (unlike her boyfriend) she sees the pain of the world and internalizes it, which often seems to overwhelm her and allows her to be treated as a less-than-equal partner.
While the play does follow a (somewhat) conventional narrative – as Girlfriend and Mother awkwardly try to connect and understand each other – it is the flashbacks that flesh out the characters and their relationship to one another that deliver the most compelling moments. The scenes between Mother and Calvin in particular give us the most insight into their individual psyches and mother-son dynamic, as we see how her controlling behavior helped shape Calvin into the man he became – both in a positive and negative way.
Much less is revealed about Girlfriend’s character for most of the play, at least through dialogue. At one point, she speaks a couple of full sentences to Mother about her ambitions, before catching herself and saying, “Sorry. I feel like I’ve been talking for a long time”. And probably with good reason. When she reveals a less-than-flattering story about Calvin in an attempt to connect, Mother pounces on her like a protective mother bear, ripping his “attacker” with her verbal claws in order to preserve her unsullied memory of him.
Rachel Cognata gives a beautifully understated performance as Girlfriend, and Alex Portenko is equally effective as the self-centered product of his upbringing, but Kippy Goldfarb’s portrayal of Mother is painfully honest. From the moment she enters the loft apartment, we can sense her lifelong discomfort in her own skin, and she manages to make us just as uncomfortable in her presence. The cast is given a lot to work with by Drury, who in addition to being a terrific storyteller, has an exceptional ear for dialogue, both incidental and meaningful.
The production itself is a work of art, as director Shawn LaCount and his creative team convincingly transform a small, spare studio/apartment into a sometimes otherworldly place, with exceptional work by lighting designer Jason Fok and sound designer Lee Schuna. In keeping with the theme of art at the center of the piece, the theater where it is staged is actually the Matter & Light Fine Art gallery in the South End, so arrive early (or stay late) to take in the current exhibits. This is don’t-miss theater for folks who like their plays a little more challenging, but seating is limited (47 seats) so get your tickets soon. Luckily the show has been extended to March 12th, so just go. For more info, go to: https://companyone.org/production/really/