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Maddy Far Away spellbinding and intense but ambiguous


Directed by Tom Tenney.

Written by Bill Bryant.

Original songs by Bill Bryant.

Starring Shae D'lyn Wood, Gretchen

Bowder, and Andrew Borthwick-Leslie.

Leland Center, Boston Center for

the Arts, Saturday, December 2.


[gfM]ADDY FAR AWAY IS A spellbinding and intense play, as long as you don't think too hard about it. Its author, Bill Bryant '83, called it a "dream play." He fractured its chains of cause and effect to bring out the intensity of his characters' needs and frustrations.

As it begins somewhere in the American Southwest, Judy (Shae D'lyn Wood) sits in a broken-down ranch house, singing about lost love. Maddy (Gretchen Bowder), a fourteen-year-old girl who wants to be a cowboy, returns from the corral; she says she was out roping with a man named Lynch (Andrew Hernon).

Clair (James Tate), Maddy's father, sees her filthy clothes and remarks, "I thought you were trying to charm that young man down the road. He ain't gonna get sweet on you if you walk around in that kind of condition." Maddy falls into a daze: "I'm dirty. I wonder if my mother knows I'm dirty? She told me it would happen."

Each line of dialogue fits credibly with the next, leading a na"ive viewer like me to expect a coherent storyline. But when one adds the lines up, they contradict each other. The setting, the way the characters are related, and even their relative ages change without explicit warning or reason.

For instance, in one scene, Clair refers to his baby as "him." In the next scene, the same baby, in the same cradle, is Maddy, whose mother died in childbirth. Or perhaps Maddy died in childbirth, and the baby is her daughter. Then Maddy, age fourteen, comes onstage, but the other characters do not act as if the scene is a flashback or flash-forward.

Maddy Far Away is not driven by plot, but by character and emotion. The scenes depict, in Kevin Cunningham's ('84) words, "emblematic, iconic events": teenage dreams, frustrated plans, marriage, divorce, love, and rape. Characters resolve to be independent, but echo each other's lines, forget each other's faces, repeat each other's mistakes, and relive each other's traumas. How can they control their futures if future and past are indistinguishable? They are trapped in the Southwest's wide-open spaces.

Bowder is superb at playing Maddy's range of moods -- by turns ambitious, rebellious, depressed, schizophrenic, and world-weary, but never dainty or elegant. Andrew Borthwick-Leslie '87 also deserves special praise; he plays Terry, Maddy's brother, boyfriend, or alter ego, depending on what scene he is in.

Ulysses Productions staged Bryant's play in the Leland Center, an arts-center basement that makes Kresge Little Theater look like a cavern. Sound effects on backstage speakers suggest a thousand acres of cattle range lying just behind the audience. Nicole Peskin, the set designer, and Tom Tenney, the director, had one problem managing the awkward space. Occasionally, characters appear behind a screen door leading offstage, but about a tenth of the audience cannot see that door. Also, as one technician pointed out, a more elaborate (and more expensive) lighting system could have underlined the play's dreamlike atmosphere.

Maddy Far Away is a work in progress; Ulysses put on last weekend's performances to test out the script and direction and get comments from theatergoers. It has its rough spots, but when it returns to the stage, it will most crucially need a theater and budget worthy of its brilliance. Keep an eye out for its return.