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Theater Review - Bad mothers

Synchronicity's Nervous Smile at 7 Stages

At once sensitive and infuriating, Synchronicity Performance Group's play A Nervous Smile really tests the empathy of its audience. The main characters — single mom Nicole (Stacy Melich) and married couple Brian and Eileen (Robin Bloodworth and Lane Carlock) — at first come across as superficially attractive, but gradually prove capable of utterly loathsome actions. A Nervous Smile challenges viewers to appreciate the conditions that inspire their ugly deeds, instead of rejecting the trio outright.

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We gradually learn that Brian, Eileen and Nicole are all parents of teenaged children with debilitating cerebral palsy, and the play begins after the funeral of a youngster who succumbed to the disease. As the evening continues, we discover not only that Nicole and Brian are having an adulterous affair, but that some of the parents have put together a heartless scheme to abandon the disabled kids and renew their lives in another country.

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Playwright John Belluso suffered from a bone disease that relegated him to a wheelchair until his death in February at the age of 36. Though the play presents some of the poetry of Brian and Eileen's daughter Emily (via one of those robotic voice-boxes associated with Stephen Hawking), Belluso focuses on the adults' contradictory feelings of love and hate. Belluso dares us to consider the enormous guilt, desperation and other emotional and financial pressures that inspire the parents' awful actions.

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Melich, Bloodworth and Carlock all provide vivid performances, but A Nervous Smile commits to some weird decisions that undermine its already difficult point of view. The plot, with its Vicodin-popping heiress and money in Swiss accounts, takes on an unnecessarily arch, soap-operatic quality. Emily's Russian-accented caregiver Blanka (Lynne Ashe) proves even more artificial. Like a role from a Woody Allen film, Blanka cracks earthy jokes, praises Dostoevsky and makes pronouncements like, "Technology goes faster than morality can keep up with."

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Fortunately, director Michele Pearce takes the material seriously and valiantly resists its slide toward melodrama. Melich goes a long way to humanize Nicole as the most sensitive, stricken parent, although we're shaken when she recounts a brutal tantrum toward her virtually helpless son. Despite its flaws, A Nervous Smile takes a memorable look at the toll disease takes on families, even the people who are healthy and appealing on the outside.