By Michele Markarian
The Gift Horse, by Lydia R. Diamond. Directed by Jim Petosa. Scenic Design by Jon Savage, Costume Design by Penney Pinette; Lighting Design by Alberto Segarra; Sound Design by Dewey Dellay. Presented by The New Repertory Theatre, 321 Arsenal Street, Watertown through May 14.
Ruth (Obehi Janice) is an energetic and engaging teacher and artist who is struggling to conceal, even from herself, a painful secret from her childhood. Once in college, she falls in love with, and then befriends, Ernesto (Alejandro Simoes), her gay neighbor. Ernesto and Ruth connect in all ways but one, but with Ernesto’s recommendation and support, Ruth is introduced to her therapist and future husband, Brian (Maurice Emmanuel Parent). Brian helps Ruth unravel the mystery of her inability to be intimate with a man, and despite Ernesto’s and Brian’s resistance to one another, they all manage to come together and create a different kind of family than the one Ruth grew up in.
“The Gift Horse” is a sketchily pieced together play. Diamond has moments of such clarity that make you want to stop the action onstage and ask the actors to repeat the lines again, just so that you might hear them twice. Her grasp of relationships is superb; the symbiosis between Ruth and Brian is one that includes jealousy of significant others and a familial-like level of support and neglect, particularly on
Ruth’s part. “It’s obscene how self-centered I am”, she says at one point, and just the fact that she’s aware of this makes you instantly excuse her. The politics of gender, race and sexual orientation are skillfully displayed without hitting the audience over the head. But the tone of the piece wavers, and the second act differs from the first as the timeline of action is more linear – there’s a lot of back and forth in act one. Most of the humor leaves with act one as well, which leaves the viewer feeling disoriented and a little cranky, as the play we were watching has morphed into something different.
But the acting is terrific. Obehi Janice exudes radiance and magnetism; her Ruth makes you sit up and pay attention. She also manages to give a textured performance, although even her energy is somewhat muted by act two. Alexander Simoes is sympathetic as Ernesto, and is able to be funny in the midst of the pathos. Lewis D. Wheeler, as Ernesto’s boyfriend Bill, is marvelously charming and pathological.
Maurice Emmanuel Parent brings a focused intensity to the role of Brian. Cloteal L. Horne is appealing as Jordan, the young, self-confident cello player.
Jon Savage’s set design works nicely in tandem with the material, featuring several landings and staircases, with neutral hung panels that effectively change color under Alberto Segarra’s sensitive lighting design. Jim Petsosa’s deft direction keeps the action fluid.
“Dolls were little people to be treated with care and respect,” says Ruth, a remark that resonates throughout the play as Ruth learns the truth about herself. In the end, Diamond’s characters have done just that, as well as come together in a way that their journey could never have foretold. If you still believe in happy endings, treat yourself to a night of “The Gift Horse”. For more info, go to: http://www.newrep.org/productions/the-gift-horse/