A DIDACTIC AGENDA Scurria, Sullivan, and Warren.
Art is artifice, as we all accept. But sometimes it's hard for artists to take a deep breath and skillfully apply more of the latter to amplify the former. David Hare's The Secret Rapture, at Trinity Repertory Company (through March 29) presents three women — two emotionally extreme and one extremely repressed — and hurls them at us as raw as fresh fish. Since they're not exactly sushi quality, we might swallow them better if they were fully cooked.
Two sisters are understandably upset by the death of their father, but that's tranquility compared to the grief that his wildly unstable widow causes. Isobel Glass (Rachael Warren), the caring sister, and Marion French (Phyllis Kay), her self-centered sibling, have to cope with Katherine (Anne Scurria), the stepmother from hell, still accustomed to being taken care of.
Familial consolation is not the nature of Marion, a hard-nosed businesswoman accustomed to thinking only of herself. That's evident in the first scene, when one of the first things she does upon approaching the deathbed of their sheet-shrouded father is to go to a bedside drawer and snatch a valuable ring she had bought him. (She said that the few times she visited him, she felt uncomfortable, poor dear.)
So responsibility for the cantankerous — did I mention alcoholic? — widow is left to Isobel, the one with a double portion of British reserve and do-the-right-thing ethos. Isobel also has to stroke a needy boyfriend — and partner in their small graphics business — Irwin Posner (Stephen Thorne). In her role as caretaker, the kindly sister is hardly beneficiary of the saintly bliss indicated by the title, in churchly parlance referring to the belief that Jesus will return. She's just long-suffering and patient.
Hare has instructions for us here. Marion represents the cold-hearted politics of the Margaret Thatcher years from two decades ago, when this play was written. Paralleling and underscoring the wrong-headed certainty of Tory attitudes is Marion's husband Tom (Fred Sullivan Jr.), a born-again Christian who has found the seraphic peace denied to Isobel. (Sullivan nails the character, the only one internally at ease here, making us envy his peace of mind rather than laugh at it.)
Matters proceed as you'd expect, Marion benefiting from the death of their father, Katherine getting away with everything but murder, Isobel bearing the brunt of all consequences. But the conclusion plunges into melodrama, with the person who acts violently not having been developed here as neurotic enough to make the violent act plausible.
The trouble with this play is not its didactic agenda, but the principal characters. They are drawn in bold strokes as easily recognizable types, and what we see at first glance is what we continue to get, unrescued by director Curt Columbus and the fine Trinity ensemble. In the opening deathbed scene, Isobel accepts Marion's furious abuse over making her feel guilty, the accusation not warranted by the slightest disapproval. We might accept that as sisterly forbearance, but Isobel letting the drunken widow elbow her way into a job her company can't need or afford is too much to believe.
Yet Scurria has an advantage in portraying a character who appears to be all surface. That's interestingly so because Katherine is all flamboyance — so the actress provides some wonderful silent moments when we see her apparent self-confidence wither within her. Isobel does acquire more dimensionality in the second act, when her irrational anger over Irwin being so doting comes across as misplaced resentment over her responsibilities in general.
Ironically, this all might have worked better if Isobel had been even more a stereotype of liberal forbearance. If she were a weak-willed ninny, at least her contortions to accommodate others would be plausible. As written and acted, she is too intelligent to be blissed-out by self-abnegation.
Now and then humor emerges, underlying the conflicts as in life at large. When Marion becomes minister of an unspecified cabinet, she jokes that anti-power-plant protesters shouldn't complain until they start glowing. Perhaps The Secret Rapture would have been more satisfying as an absurdist play. The Thatcherite politics don't get in the way in this production, selfishness transcending time and nationhood, so maybe Kay could have played Marion in drag, as Ronald Reagan or John McCain.