“Are you having a bit of a midlife crisis?” Harper Regan’s mother (Mary Beth Peil) asks her, a little crisply. That both is and isn’t what’s troubling the heroine of Simon Stephens’s Harper Regan (Atlantic Theater). Like Harper herself, this intriguing new British play doesn’t have precise answers for such questions. It’s indecisive but constantly alive.
Harper (Mary McCann) is having several kinds of crises at once. While passing into her forties, she’s struggling to deal with a troubled marriage, doubly troubled thanks to a complex backstory involving her husband, Seth (Gareth Saxe). The complexities include a traumatic move from Manchester to suburban London, which also means a new school for the couple’s bright, inevitably hypersensitive teenage daughter, Sarah (Madeleine Martin). The move has brought economic stresses, too, putting Harper into a job she hates, with an eccentric boss (Jordan Lage) who treats her with an unnerving mix of hostility and ill-concealed lust.
Additionally, Harper’s dad, a retired teacher long divorced from her mother, is dying. Her trip back to Manchester for one last sight of him catalyzes Harper, leaving Mum, boss, husband, and daughter unchanged, but permanently altering her sense of them and of herself. Harper’s own actions, including a series of sexual or quasi-sexual encounters with strangers (Stephen Tyrone Williams, Peter Scanavino, and Christopher Innvar), precipitate much of the alteration. Much of it comes, too, from her sudden awareness of the disconnected, disorienting world modern technology has created: The Manchester of her childhood is now full of Internet cafés.
Like her author, Harper sees the constantly altering world around her as a source more of wonder and puzzlement than of clearly defined goods and bads. A woman who has been conventional and passively noncommittal till now, she’s a 21st-century Alice discovering her own capacities as well as the present’s.
Though always believable, Harper’s late emergence from her shell of passivity makes the play problematic: Why, given her intelligence, her troubling marital circumstances, and her outspoken role models, has her assertiveness only arrived at this juncture? Along with the clearly intended moral ambiguities, Stephens proffers muddy dramaturgical uncertainties, presenting his heroine as a series of tentative hypotheses that don’t equal a fully portrayed statement.
Luckily, he has Gaye Taylor Upchurch’s sharp, austerely clean-lined production to keep his vagaries from drifting away. The acting is uniformy rock-solid, with Lage and Peil coming off most forcefully. McCann’s Mancunian accent may wander occasionally, but her doughty, demurely questioning presence is always emphatically there.