29 January 2012

Jennifer Van Dyck in ‘The Picture Box’

A girl I used to know: With Arthur French,
in Charles Weldon’s production for the Negro Ensemble Company.

The last time I went to the stage door of the Beckett Theatre to congratulate an actress, she was Billie Whitelaw and her dressing-room had just been burgled. Greeting Jennifer Van Dyck at the stage door last week turned out to be a happier affair, I think.

Jennifer had just finished a performance of Cate Ryan’s The Picture Box, with the Negro Ensemble Company. (The show closed today.) Seeing her in the small and simple confines of a Theatre Row house — not so unlike Brown’s Production Workshop at Faunce House in its proportions — seeing her in a T-shirt and jeans — pretty much what she wore in college — seeing her in a play — it was as if nothing had changed, and she’d tricked time, somehow.

She is aging awfully well. Actually, I’m not sure it’s accurate to call it “aging” at all: she’s really just existing progressively. And she’s also doing some lovely acting, centered and honest and graceful, alongside fine co-stars in an earnest if imperfect little play.

The Picture Box gives us Mackie (Arthur French) and Josephine (Elain Graham), an older couple who worked for the mother, now deceased, of Carrie (Jennifer), first on Long Island and then in some sort of Floridian paradise. Carrie’s got to sell her mother’s house — to a white couple who are far more boorish than dramatic purposes really require them to be. So one last time, Carrie, Mackie, and Jo sit and reminisce.

It quickly becomes apparent that the bonds here are far deeper than those among employer and employees, and the characters describe each other as “my oldest friend” and “like family.” Having just lost Bessie, I understand the truth of those feelings, even as they’ve made me uncomfortable sometimes: Bessie was my family, yes, but was I ever part of hers? Do I truly know her family, or her opinions? Did I know before reading her obituary that her kin called her “Beth”?

Ryan’s play was a somewhat slender vehicle for such musings, it must be said. Sensitively directed by Charles Weldon, artistic director of the NEC, the script nevertheless bore signs of its author’s inexperience. The picture box of the title, for example, turns out to be a gimmick so that the characters could look at old photos and tell each other stories they already knew, for the sole purpose of informing the audience things we didn’t know. And the plot drives toward a moment — signing some papers — that left many of us confused about the procedures of selling a house. (We talked about it, generally, as we left the theater.)

Still, the playful interaction between Mackie and Jo elicited a warm response from the audience at the performance I attended, and the principal trio of actors was marvelous. Together they created something delicate and true, in quietly assured strokes. Even the frankly impossible roles of the intrusive bigots got a boost from Marisa Redanty and Malachy Cleary’s skilled performances. (Redanty was especially good at suggesting the possibility of humane good intentions behind her offensiveness.)

To be honest, I have every reason to believe I’d enjoy watching Jennifer act in almost anything; since she was a girl, she’s been one of the most reliably entertaining talents I’ve encountered. It’s unnerving, really. And yet, as I say, it does my heart good to see her still working at something she seems so surely meant to do. That’s a great gift indeed.

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