Where: The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee Ave.
When: through Nov. 20
By ANNE SPISELMAN
The world premiere of Melissa Ross’ A Life Extra Ordinary at The Gift Theatre starts off with a promising premise and an engaging protagonist, but this too-long would-be mystery-memory play loses its way in a morass of unnecessary information and missed opportunities.
We first meet Annabel Anderson McCafferty (Cyd Blackewell), a lively young woman with a bright smile and mop of curly hair, before the drama even starts. She’s handing out little tea lights to those who want to participate in an upcoming scene. Once the house lights goes down, she introduces herself and ticks off ten things we should know about her from a raised platform at one end of the theater, with homey projections (by Smooch Medina) behind her. The last item is the kicker: She’s dead.
We soon learn that she disappeared from her small Ohio college town near Lake Erie on Christmas Eve 2004. She was eight month’s pregnant with her first child, and her disfigured body wasn’t discovered until days later. The rest of the evening is devoted to trying to unravel what happenedin two different ways, both narrated by Annabel.
The first act charts the events immediately leading up to her disappearance and the police search for her, concentrating on her distraught parents, Tom (Paul D’Addario) and Grace (Lynda Newton), and the cops, seasoned veteran, Bill (John Kelly Connolly), and younger rookie, Sam (Rudy Galvan), who was Annabel’s school days sweetheart. There’s also a witness, bartender Polly (Darci Nalepa), and off on the sidelines, a man we know is Annabel’s husband, Jeff (Jay Worthington).
The second act features scenes from Annabel’s life, including her relationship with her parents as a child, adolescent, and young adult; her love of horticulture and work in the field, and how she met and married Jeff. Some offer insight into her character; for example, her description of a best-day-ever fishing with her father, and the lesson in self-reliance he forced on her that made it possible. Others just seem to meander. And a crucial one simply isn’t believable: Jeff hits on her while she’s trying to save a rose bush, and he’s so arrogant and even creepy, a smart young woman like her would never fall for such a line. Admittedly, this could be a case of miscasting, because there’s no chemistry between Blakewell and Worthington to help account for her irrational behavior.
Anyway, by this timeor long beforewe’ve figured out that Jeff is the culprit. What we never learn is why. Ross doesn’t provide the clues to build the case. Most importantly, Polly comes to the police and says she has information, but we don’t find out exactly what it is. Semi-hysterical and fearing for her life in several scenes, she’s too busy demanding protection and a lawyer, and when she finally testifies, we’re not privy to what she says. We can piece together that she slept with Jeff and he said he’d never hurt her, but that’s about it. Unless I missed something, his reasons for wanting to kill Annabel remain unknown, though maybe we’re simply supposed to conclude he’s a psychopath.
While some things that seemed extraneous in the first act are explained in the second, others aren’t. There’s a very long, chatty scene between Bill and Sam at the police station on Christmas Eve before they learn Annabel is missing that seems totally superfluous. It shows the working relationship between them, and they talk about other townspeople we never meet, but basically it could be cut. I’m not sure the references to a past romance between Bill and Grace are relevant either, except perhaps as Ross’ way of fleshing out the details of small town life.
With some trimming, tightening, and more attention to logic, flow, and motivation, A Life Extra Ordinary could be compelling. John Gawlik’s direction and the acting generally are strong, but the glue that holds it together is Blakewell’s performance. By turns delighted, disappointed, angry, reflective, and a whole lot more, she’s a young woman we’re happy to have met and sad to have lost.