Feb. 07--A former, but still classically opulent, bank lobby in the heart of Pittsburgh's historic banking district is an elegant and supportive choice for "Madagascar," Quantum Theatre's latest production.
J.T. Rogers' play takes place in an upscale hotel room overlooking the Spanish Steps in Rome, so the towering marble columns, coffered ceilings inset with coins and suns and the Roman numerals on the wall clock echo the play's themes of economics and memories of a family's Roman holidays.
The bank also is a fitting location, as many of these old-time institutions are often the keepers of family secrets as well as their wealth.
Secrets both shared and unshared are at the core of this 95-minute, intermission-less drama. That makes it a difficult play to talk about without spoiling the fun of theatergoers peeling back the layers of mystery for themselves.
The room is occupied simultaneously by Lilian, five years ago; her daughter June, three days ago; and Nathan, a family friend in the present.
But there are actually three unseen characters in the play: Arthur, the often-absent economics superstar who was Lilian's husband and June's father; Gideon, Lilian's son and June's brother; and the audience, who becomes the confessor and confidante for this guilty, questioning trio.
Playwright Rogers takes nearly half of the play to get to what the Lilian, June and Nathan feel guilty about. So, it's best to pay attention as the onstage characters reminisce, explain and lay the groundwork. He also cheats -- at least in my opinion -- by withholding one important piece of information until late in the play.
Lilian, June and Nathan are each trying to solve the mystery of someone's disappearance. Each feels it was something they did or didn't do. But as they recount the past, they can't see what it might have been.
June tells us her father's advice was always: "Dig deeper. Find the connection. That's how you unlock a mystery."
And that's what the audience is able to do as it assembles clues and pieces together details from the separate stories and differing memories.
Director Sheila McKenna expertly times the play to pass on information at the regulated pace of a time-release capsule.
At play's end, Lilian, June and Nathan still lack an answer to what happened and who's guilty. But audience members, having gathered all the clues, will be able to come to conclusions. Different observers may leave with a different solution than they or the characters expected. But it's likely that you'll catch the irony of how keeping a secret in the attempt to protect people can have the reverse effect.
The cast is first-rate: Helena Ruoti making her Quantum Theatre debut as Lilian; Larry John Meyers as the economics genius runner-up Nathan, and Melinda Helfrich as June. In addition to their main roles, they enact ancillary parts such as tourists, airline passengers and relief workers in Africa.
Ironically, you won't get to enjoy the full splendor of the former Union National Savings Bank lobby. The room's acoustics, while excellent for preventing bank customer voices from travelling and revealing secrets, made it hard for the actors to be heard. So, scenic designer Stephanie Mayer-Staley draped the marble walls with a cocoon of fabric, which improved audibility and gives the audience the feeling that they're entering a pristine cave.
There's four more things audiences should know about this Quantum Theatre production:
--The room is fully and adequately heated.
--There are functioning toilets on the premises.
--Abundant free parking can be found on Downtown streets after 6 p.m. as well as in a for-fee garage a block away.
--Demand for tickets has been so strong that Quantum has added a week to the run.
Alice T. Carter is the theater critic for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7808 or email@example.com.
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