Bitter Fruit

A mother and her genius, but ill-mannered, son relocate to Crested Butte, CO to begin a new life.  Running parallel paths, the mother begins to find happiness once again while the son takes a step towards living life for the very first time.  But an insatiable need to know may tear both of their lives asunder.  This is Wildflower by Lila Rose Kaplan and is currently playing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

While Ms Kaplan’s script is interesting in some respects, it suffers from the flaw of not being a strong narrative.  By that I mean there really isn’t an arc to this play.  It’s really vignettes of the lives of the characters of this show.

Where the writing excels is in the characters themselves.  Not only are the characters fully formed people, but they have distinctive and well developed arcs with plenty of meat in which actors can sink their teeth.  The powerful characters help to cover the fact that the overall story lacks a unifying core.

Lara Marsh is a bit of auteur with this production as she not only directs, but also designed the set and helped to design the sounds.  Her direction is tight and sure.  Each character gets its fair due and chance to shine and Ms Marsh knows how to maximize each climax and resolution in the interrelationships of these characters.  Her staging is admirable with the entire blackbox being utilized and her mastery in crafting emotional moments cannot be argued.  She also gets thoroughly capable performances out of her cast.

Solid supporting performances are supplied by Francisco Franco and Jarod Cernousek.  As Mitchell, Franco plays a former burlesque performer turned hotel owner/chef who dispenses wise advice and has found peace in his life in the most extraordinary way.  Cernousek’s James is a forest ranger with a power complex and the rod up his back has a rod up its back which I’m pretty certain has a rod up its back.

Aaron Sorilla is exceptional in his performance as Randolph.  Randolph is a high functioning autistic and Sorilla does truly wonderful work in communicating the aspects of autism such as his focus on self, rudeness, fixations, and a bit of a sing-song cadence to his speaking patterns.  His timing is excellent and he knows how to elicit a good laugh from a line.  But he also handles the drama side of the role equally well.  There is a real tragedy to his character as he is unable to understand emotion and his literal nature means everything needs to be spelled out to him in excruciating detail.  And that need to know leads him down a treacherous path.

Jocelyn Reed plays Erica, Randolph’s mother.  Ms Reed does a good job of encasing Erica’s core of sadness in a bubbly personality.  The bubblyness is not a put on.  It’s more like if Erica focuses on being happy, then she’ll forget the sadness which is always threatening to rear its ugly face.  This is a person who has had a rough go of things.  It’s implied she was in an emotionally abusive marriage from which she is trying to recover and while she loves her son, Ms Reed’s body language conveys the sense that she sometimes feels chained to him due to his special needs.  Indeed, as a loving mother, she makes sacrifices to her own happiness for the sake of her son.  But her shining moment is when we get to see her exude utter joy when her son forms a special friendship with a girl.  Not only is she happy for him, but she is happy for herself as she sees the possibilities that each of them can live their own life.

Hannah Davis makes her acting debut as Astor and does quite well in her first outing.  There’s a lot of fun to this character.  One is never certain if she is also a high functioning autistic or just very immature due to a combination of an odd upbringing and her own exceptional intelligence.  She comes off as much younger than 16 especially when she’s bossing Erica around in the visitor’s center and engaging in childish arguments with Randolph.  Yet she has startling moments of pseudo-sophistication and clearly has the longings of a young girl coming of age due to her wanting intimacy so she isn’t inexperienced when she shortly heads off to college.  While Ms Davis’ character foundation is rock solid, I think she has the leeway to amp up what’s she’s doing a notch or two.

Lara Marsh has provided a simple, but effective set for the production with a counter full of brochures, seeds, and flowers for the visitor’s center and a rolling counter for Mitchell’s kitchen.  Kendra Newby’s costumes well suit the personalities of the characters from the perfectly pressed forest ranger’s uniform of James to the too big sports coat (it’s his father’s) of Randolph to the childlike clothing of Astor as well as her beautiful sundress as she comes of age.  Riley Campbell and Craig & Lara Marsh team up for some fantastic sounds such as the hotline’s ringing telephone and the blast of fireworks.  Rebecca Roth’s lights are top of the line especially with the stars of the outdoors and the flash and colors of exploding fireworks.

In spite of a missing centrality to the story, this show is a strong showcase in character work aided by surefire direction.  It’ll make you laugh.  It’ll make you wonder.  It’ll even tug at your heartstrings a little.

Wildflower plays in the Weber Fine Arts Building in Room 006 at the University of Nebraska-Omaha through April 28.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 8pm and Sunday at 2pm.  Tickets are free.  Due to adult subject matter and language, this show is recommended for mature audiences.  The University of Nebraska-Omaha is located at 6001 Dodge St in Omaha, NE.