NEW YORK — No longer young, but not yet old; it's no wonder 40-something women often experience a mid-life crisis, although the subject rarely gets staged.
Playwright Simon Stephens has written an uncannily honest portrait of one woman's effort to grab control of her own life, in "Harper Regan." A well-crafted production of Stephens' complex, insightful drama opened Wednesday night at the Atlantic Theater Company's newly refurbished main theater.
Mary McCann is luminous in the role of 41-year-old Harper, who rebels against her role as a white-collar wage-slave and dutiful wife and strikes out alone on a symbolic journey. McCann sensitively portrays Harper's repressed anger and increasing boldness, and her strong performance and expressive array of listening postures center all the other characters around her.
Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch creates a permanent sense of tension through slightly surrealistic vignettes and mindful restraint by the excellent ensemble cast. Stephens' dialogue is masterful: naturalistic, sometimes ambivalent, and filled with pauses where characters just look at one another. The scenes between mothers and daughters are particularly compelling, at times even painful to hear.
When Harper learns that her estranged father is dying, she politely asks her peculiar boss (Jordan Lage, both whimsical and borderline creepy) for time off, which he refuses. Following an awkward, oddly suggestive conversation with a 17-year-old boy, (personably performed by Stephen Tyrone Williams), she finally arrives home.
Her relationship with her husband, Seth, definitely appears strained, although she has a good, communicative rapport with her outspoken college-age daughter, Sarah (Madeleine Martin, spunky and believable.) Gareth Saxe wears a determinedly cheerful but slightly beaten-down demeanor as Harper's oddly unemployed husband.
Then she goes off to see her father without saying anything to her family. Each subsequent encounter, with a series of strangers and eventually with her estranged mother, provides another epiphany. Stephens includes unexpected twists in every vignette, notably in a pub scene between Harper and an increasingly unpleasant man (Peter Scanavino, effectively slimy) that ends the first act with sudden violence.
Harper eventually reveals her terrible family secret to a mature, understanding stranger she's arranged on the Internet to have sex with (a tender performance by Christopher Innvar). In one of her funniest lines, Harper wryly asks him, "I bet you didn't expect this to happen, did you? Big bloody confessional kind of horror-story thing."
In between scenes, the actors rearrange or empoweringly knock down Rachel Hauck's minimalist set of moveable, gray walls. The austere set and targeted lighting choices by Jeff Croiter add to the general sense of dread, as it's unclear whether Harper's going to self-destruct on her adventure.
When she angrily confronts her reproving mother, (a wonderful performance by Mary Beth Peil), Harper learns hard, unsettling truths and must rethink beliefs that have sustained her for years. Possibly one of the wisest things Stephens has her say is, "The only thing we ever know is that we know nothing."
But Stephens actually does know a lot of things, about hope and redemption and trust and forgiveness, and he's an expert at conveying the defining moments that can occur in ordinary conversations. The final scene is filled with delicate possibility, as Saxe touchingly recites a hopeful soliloquy about the future Seth just might still have a chance at.