Dramatic Shaker Chair unseats expectations
three stars Stirring
Marion loves her new chair. It’s a beautiful wood straight back with woven seats. It’s a copy of a Shaker chair, and though she finds it beautiful, Marion admits that the chair isn’t very comfortable.
“The Shakers didn’t believe in sitting around,” she tells us. “There was no procrastination…I should get up and do something.”
That simple call to arms — “get up and do something” — kicks off Adam Bock’s The Shaker Chair, a co-production of Berkeley’s Shotgun Players and San Francisco’s Encore Theatre Company now at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley.
Bock had hit shows with both companies (Swimming in the Shallows with Shotgun, Five Flights with Encore) when he was living and working in the Bay Area. He’s a hot-shot New York playwright now. His The Thugs won an Obie earlier this year, and his current show, The Receptionist, is an off-Broadway hit.
The Shaker Chair is an older work that had its premiere in 2005 at the Humana Festival of New American Plays, and of Bock’s work we’ve seen here, it’s the least developed.
Bock is a wonderful, intriguing writer, and all his strengths are evident in Shaker, but the the play never quite fulfills its initial promise.
Marion (Frances Lee McCain), the new chair owner, is, effectively, asleep. She, like so many of us, enjoys a certain complacency in her comfortable life. Drama happens around her, not to her.
Her sister, Dolly (Nancy Shelby, below), is an emotional mess as a result of marital strife with her husband, Frank (a smiling, menacing Will Marchetti, below with Shelby), and turns to Marion for solace.
Marion’s best friend, Jean (Scarlett Hepworth), is an activist unafraid to commit crimes or resort to violence in the name of her good cause. Jean’s current fixation is a sewage-spewing pig farm polluting the nearby countryside and mistreating its pigs.
“There’s no reverence!” Jean shouts. “In the powerful, without reverence, there’s nothing to protect the weak.”
Perhaps stirred by her Shaker chair and the Shaker believe that “if your life is shaken you will be awakened,” Marion joins forces with Jean and her young activist-terrorists (Andrew Calabrese and Marissa Keltie) for a pig farm mission in the wee hours of the night.
Exhilaration, uncertainty and horror follow as Marion is forced to decide just how awake — just how shaken — she wants to be in the name of doing the right thing and working outside the system.
Bock writes in a hyper-natural style with short clipped fragments of sentences that approximate and exaggerate human speech. Director Tracy Ward has her actors _ all of whom are superb _ talking over each other through much of the show’s brisk 70 minutes.
A key piece of action shifts the play into its final moments, and that’s when The Shaker Chair wobbles. Bock’s attempt at Pinteresque unease fused with his own sense of hope doesn’t have the impact it should.
The Frank-Dolly subplot, ostensibly meant to represent those of us with little regard for anything outside our own jumbled lives, diffuses the clean line of Marion’s story. We need more time with this interesting woman — so beautifully limned by McCain — who has, in later life, stumbled into the courage to make radical change.
The Shaker Chair continues through Jan. 27 at The Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley (directly across from the Ashby BART station). Shows are at 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $20-$30. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org or www.encoretheatrecompany.org