Theater archives

Rachel in Wonderland


In an item on the TV newscast that the heroine and her husband are watching as Reckless opens, a woman has given birth to a two-headed baby on Christmas Eve; “mother and child,” the newscaster tells us, unconscious of any pun, “are both in stable condition.” So, at the Biltmore, are lunacy, improbability, and goodness of heart, which make up Reckless‘s holy trinity. Ours is an insane, unstable world, with no dependable places of refuge—note that the mother in the news item is an Albanian woman who has inexplicably taken flight to the former Yugoslavia—and everyone’s destiny is shaped by a series of more or less staggering coincidences. If we are very lucky, or very consistent in our goals, they may work out for the best, but even that will have its admixture of tragic loss; wholeness is nowhere. This is the vision with which Craig Lucas infused his 1983 comedy Reckless (first produced in this revised version in 1988), a view of life at once absurdly funny and deeply pained. Its heroine, Rachel (Mary-Louise Parker), is a person of preposterous, retrograde normality: a woman who, in the 1980s, is interested only in being a wife, mother, and homemaker. Rachel’s favorite holiday is Christmas. Tucked into bed next to her spouse (Thomas Sadoski), nattering away happily about presents and childhood while their two pre-kindergarten sons sleep safely in the next room and the snow swirls outside, she could be an animated figure trapped in a snowglobe.

Except that our world’s no snowglobe, and people who live in artificial spheres live in denial. Sick of her chatty, cheerful deafness to reality, Rachel’s husband has taken out a contract on her life, and before you know it, Rachel is out the window, running helplessly through the snow in her housecoat and slippers, an adult Alice in a decidedly unwelcoming winter Wonderland. Events grow progressively weirder as Rachel is rescued from disaster, time and again, by strangers who are never exactly what they seem, but who are always well-intentioned enough to respond to her innate beneficence, capacity for work, and will to endure. Ironically, Rachel’s virtuous nature is what brings her, over and over again, to the brink of a horrible fate, from which her deeply flawed fellow humans always reach out to save her, only to fall into it themselves, through their own innate flaws.

This sounds like a scenario for an animated cartoon, a form with which Reckless has some affinities. In its jaunty picaresque shift from place to place, sideswiping a cross section of American institutions as it goes, it also has links to the satirical revue: While telling the adventures that mark Rachel’s testing and spiritual growth as a person, it offers a set of sketches that kid the phoniness of modern urban attitudes toward addiction, bad debt, self-help, the disabled, foundations, violence, white-collar crime. And therapy: Wherever Rachel goes, she seeks help, trying to understand the events that drove her out of her home in the first place; her six therapists, all played deliciously by Debra Monk, constitute a portrait gallery of clinical quacks to rank with Molière’s Diafoirus family. “Whose dream are we discussing?” inquires one of these misguided specimens, and Rachel has to explain, gently, that she has been playing along with the therapist’s refusal to accept the events of her life as real.

They aren’t, of course. Like every play, Reckless is its author’s dream. But Rachel’s apologetic rejoinder, “I thought it was part of the therapy to talk about everything like it was a dream,” simultaneously coldcocks the therapist’s pretensions and links the play’s notion of reality to that higher philosophic vision in which, indeed, everything we live is a dream, and the terrors of our world are part of an inexplicable destiny which may, indeed, be some greater Author’s imagining, like the Red King’s dream in Alice. For the wrongheaded therapists are also right about Rachel: The source of her troubles does lie in her past, and one of the play’s last three astonishing twists will be her rescue by the person who has unwittingly caused her the greatest destruction, and who saves her so that, improbably, she can weep for her children, like the biblical Rachel, but in a modern (and hence comic) way. The final scene, in which Rachel is reunited with a member of the family from which she ran stumbling through the snow at the start, is one of the rare gems in the history of comedie larmoyante; it’s difficult to think of any other so smilingly funny and so close to tragedy at the same time.

This scene, as played by Parker and Sadoski, is also the apex of Mark Brokaw’s production, which is generally a solid, rather than a masterful, piece of work. Clean, brightly lit, and capably acted, it approaches Lucas’s script straight-on and sets it out clearly, but without the pinch of magic or zaniness that would make it soar. Fortunately, the script has its own built-in magic, and the production has a fairy godmother: Parker has always seemed to have an extra shimmering aura about her; I used to assume it was caused by the tears she brought to my eyes in serious roles. But Rachel is a sufferer in a comedy, and the shimmer is there whenever Parker is onstage, a kind of lambent warmth projecting off her even when she’s making you laugh; she merges it with a wide-eyed, puppy-dog eagerness that turns both tears and terror topsy-turvy.

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