Review: In Good Company’s ‘This Random World,’ connections make all the difference. Local theater can be yours.
To say that Amelia Ryan has played memorable mothers on stage is an understatement. Two powerhouse roles come to mind: the formidable Katharine in Terrence McNalley’s aptly titled “Mothers and Sons,” in which she struggles back from homophobia; and (at least in my own memory) what I might call the Madonna de Triomphe of her career: the unforgettable character of Margaret in Craig Lucas and Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza,” a woman of tenderness and steel, a mother who clings to her daughter and yet knows when it’s time to let go.
And then there’s Scottie, the older mother played by Ryan in “This Random World,” the brisk and thoughtful play by Steven Dietz that Good Company Players picked for its first regular run at the 2nd Space Theatre after lockdown.
The character isn’t a blockbuster in terms of stage time; this is very much an ensemble show. Scottie doesn’t even share any scenes with her children. And she isn’t particularly likable. (“God, I must have been a tedious woman,” she muses about her life.) But there’s something oddly resonant in the way that Ryan captures this woman’s certainties and doubts. After her moments on stage, a residue of her lingers, like a grand dame who wears a hint too much classic perfume.
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One thing is for sure: Scottie is a mystery to her two children. Tim (Joseph Ham, in a first-rate portrayal of listlessness), is too busy shrugging through his tediously disappointing 30-something life to pay much attention to his mom. Her daughter, Beth (Jessica Rose Knotts, in a crisp performance), is, by contrast, a too-sharp blade compared to Tim’s dull butter knife. Along with obsessing about her upcoming 40th birthday, she picks and pries, mostly unsuccessfully, into her mother’s life.
We’re so used to mothers who want to be close to their kids that it’s startling to confront one who wants to let them loose. Scottie is in the habit of taking world trips around the world accompanied by a home helper, Bernadette (Laura Dodds), whom Scottie treats as a cross between a surrogate daughter and harried aide-de-camp. Needless to say, Tim and Beth don’t know of their mother’s interests and pursuits. Nor do they know the state of her health.
The subtitle of “This Random World” is “The Myth of Serendipity,” and the vignettes that unfold include characters and subplots that seem far removed from Scottie’s life — until the pieces, puzzle-like, begin to fit together. Director Dan Pessano finds a gentle rhythm to the storyline, which includes a diligent ex-boyfriend (a strong Ted Nunes, who also wrote the production’s appealing original music) and troubled ex-girlfriend (a compelling Marikah Christine Leal), add complexity to the narrative. We also meet an unusual funeral-home employee, Rhonda, (Kylee Leyva) who happens to be Bernadette’s sister — and the coincidences and connections keep adding up.
Ginger Kay Lewis Reed’s contemporary costumes feel authentic, from Tim’s slouchy gray sweatpants to Beth’s Arctic gear). Brandi Martin’s lighting design gives the material an intimate scope. and David Pierce’s simple set design is effective, though the projections need to be more brightly defined.
There’s a risk to writing interlocking stories that are so neatly connected, even if it’s the audience — and not necessarily the characters — who are aware of how everything fits together. It can feel gimmicky. And I’m decidedly ambivalent about the play’s ending, which I suspect will be a love-it-or-hate-it prospect for most people.
But there’s also something refined and introspective about Dietz’s take on serendipity. One of the characters expresses the oft-repeated view that everything happens for a reason. Scottie, a woman who wishes that she allowed herself more doubts in her life, counters authoritatively: “Don’t believe it … everything is an accident.”
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Which is it? Most people like to think that life follows some sort of grand plan — that some higher power metes out our opportunities and disappointments, all in service of a larger vision. But that philosophy also conflicts with the idea of free will — that we make our choices and deal with what the universe throws our way. Let the debates rage.
Two things are definitely not accidents, however. One is Ryan’s nuanced and memorable performance. You don’t want to miss it — and that of the rest of the talented ensemble cast. And the other is the great effort that Good Company Players has taken in the past 15 months to bring live theater back to the Fresno area. At the performance I attended, the audience at the 2nd Space was much smaller than I would have expected — particularly for a theater company that is fighting the good fight on the let’s-bring-back-theater front.
So support local theater, make sure you’re vaccinated, and think about your connections with those around you. It will make life feel a little less random.