The Shaker Chair, now through July 11, 2010 at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View, is your typical overly earnest, liberal-guilt-trip fantasy. In it, a doormat named Marion (Carolyn Ford Compton), whose life appears to mostly consist of enduring the endless marital melodramas of her sister, Dolly (Roberta Morris), is roused from her upper-middle-class stupor by her best friend, Jean (Beverley Griffith), a strident animal-rights activist who has made it her mission to stem the flow of sewage leeching into the local water table, courtesy of the capitalist pigs running a nearby hog farm.
Marion is not the sort of person who usually consents to dressing in black and creeping out in the middle of the night for a bit of eco-terrorist monkey-wrenching. She's a stickler for cleanliness, order and playing by the rules, but Marion has just purchased a reproduction of a Shaker chair, which has mysteriously spurred her to action.
Say what? Playwright Adam Bock briefly acknowledges the silliness of his bourgeois premise -- shopping brings enlightenment -- via some of the dialogue Jean delivers to her friend, but then, having dutifully played his own devil's advocate, he forces his characters to follow through with his ridiculous conceit just the same. For Marion, the chair is her projection of Shaker virtues, a four-legged muse that moves her to engage with the world around her, even though the Shakers are known for, among other things, turning their backs on society.
Beyond this inane plot, the play has numerous other problems. Bock's writing style is a kind of Mamet-lite, with lots of rapid-fire dialogue in which the actors are supposed to regularly interrupt one another. Unfortunately, on opening night anyway, most of the company was not yet comfortable enough with the material to pull off this difficult, naturalistic style. The interactions between the characters needed more velocity, the delivery of the words more speed. Instead, one actor would end a line in mid-sentence, followed by an awkward beat, before another stepped in to deliver his or her piece of Bock's puzzle. The result was a stilted, oddly absurdist rendition that cannot be what the author had in mind. No doubt it will improve with practice.
The script also includes numerous pretentious arty interludes, the best of which came early -- flashing red lights and whining sirens stood in fine for the unseen wee-hours attack on the feculent farm. Unfortunately, this simple effect was followed by an amateurish slide show of Marion tossing and turning in the middle of the night, going to the fridge for a glass of milk, looking pensive. Yeesh. Even more inexplicable was the black curtain that was awkwardly pulled from the side of the stage so that a couple of actors in white gloves could stand in front of it and slowly raise their arms up and down while bathed in black light. The elaborate undertaking added nothing to the story, and the light wasn't even aimed properly -- the gloves glowed when the actors held their hands low, but went dark when they raised them high. Fail.
The production was not without some virtues. Carolyn Ford Compton as Marion gave a solid performance as a woman wrestling with her value system and the changes stirring in her head and heart. I wanted her to figure things out and find peace, and her arc from prudish neat freak before the big caper to exhilarated schoolgirl after was fun to watch. I especially liked her scene with Lou (Adrienne Walters, who is terrific), a tough and quick-witted 15-year-old whose snappy patter was a tonic to all the adult blather. Supporting cast member John Beamer as Tom also shined, getting both the nervous energy of his character and the rhythms of Bock's prose right.
In the end, though, The Shaker Chair is a NIMBY play. Think about it: The cause that Jean champions and malleable Marion embraces revolves around the quality of the water supply in their affluent little bubble of a town, where one can leave one's front door unlocked without fear of being robbed and the beach is within walking distance. The net effect of Jean's fight, if she's successful, will merely perpetuate the privileged lives of a well-off few. The brief appearance of a live pig (Pearblossom) on stage is supposed to stoke Marion's and the audience's hunger for justice, but by the time the lights came up I had a hunger all right -- I was craving a BLT.
The Shaker Chair runs through July 11, 2010 at the Pear Avenue Theatre in Mountain View. For tickets and information visit thepear.org.