In greenhouses the world over, botanists work to create new flora—a showier orchid, a more fragrant rose. And in garrets, offices, and apartment corners, playwrights take up a similar challenge, recombining dramatic components into new forms. In 1921, Provincetown Playhouse founder Susan Glaspell took on both struggles, debuting The Verge, a play about Claire Archer, an amateur horticulturalist frustrated by society’s conventions and eager to fashion a flower “outside what flowers have been.” Claire rejects all those who obstruct her, including husband, daughter, and hunky lover. When she thinks the latter may interfere in her work, she strangles him, then breaks into a rousing chorus of “Nearer My God to Thee.”
While Claire succeeds in crafting a blossom called The Breath of Life, critics determined that Glaspell had failed in imbuing her own play—an uncomfortable blend of realism, expressionism, and allegory—with such a vital spark. Alexander Woollcott, by no means the cruelest, said it fell just short of “unmitigated balderdash.” But in recent years, many theater scholars have attempted to recuperate the play, arguing that Glaspell’s prose embraces a distinctly feminist style.
Perhaps they’re right, though I don’t much admire the bouquet that director Alice Reagan and Performance Lab 115 have assembled at the Ontological Theater. Reagan is a director of vivacity and talent, and I have enjoyed many of her previous shows, like last summer’s Caucasian Chalk Circle or her girly take on The Women of Trachis. But her work on The Verge does not overcome the play’s thorniness. Reagan adopts a semi-stylized affect—a corset worn on the outside of clothing, gardening tools standing in for flowers, video sequences—which neither soothes nor illuminates the script’s irregularities.
It takes an especially firm vision to make sense of Glaspell’s neurotic fantasy; Reagan, though she supplies a few inspired moments, does not provide it. Much of the cast seem ill-fitted for their assigned roles, and even those better suited have difficulty making sense of lines such as, “You are disturbed because you lie too close upon the heart of life.” The production can’t transcend that much fertilizer.