backstage (2007-04)

How About a Drink?

Miss Rearden is a dark tour through the psyche, with a comical edge

by Kevin Crowe

"Did you know that eating the right amount of vegetables can make your feces odorless?" asks Anna Rearden in Theatre Knoxville Downtown's production of Miss Rearden Drinks a Little . That's right, that Miss Rearden is slightly loony, but she doesn't drink. Everyone else, however, does enjoy the occasional lackadaisicalness. They also enjoy polysyllabics, because the three Rearden sisters work in education.

And they take education very seriously, or maybe just the verisimilitude of education. Who cares? Big words are fun, especially when they belie a person's mental stability.

Besides one gross misuse of "penultimate," Catherine Rearden--the Rearden who does, in fact, drink a little--has a saucily convoluted vocabulary, which she uses to talk about "preposterous disestimations" of her "nepotistically endowed assistant principalship." And, if you care to try your hand at verbal sparring, she'll reduce your best wit to nothing more than "gorgonzola of the breath."

The Reardens aren't your typical group of sisters, because that'd be boring. There's Ceil Adams, née Ceil Rearden, who is the superintendent of the school district in which her two sisters work. Catherine is the assistant principal, although she spends most of her time caring for Anna, who was once the chemistry teacher, who now stands accused of seducing one of her young male students.

There's quite a bit of action that takes place before the play opens: We're told that Anna has taken a psychotic turn for the worse, has become a strict vegetarian and is taking a peculiar interest in stray cats. "She looked like somebody's Saint Sebastian, smiling," Catherine says to describe the bizarre pleasure Anna seemed to take when she was given the rabies vaccine. Anna just kept insisting that she had contracted rabies from one of her encounters with a stray cat, and the painful vaccine was the only thing that could placate her.

We learn that the Reardens are the product of an overprotective mother. The play, however, is set not too long after the mother died. When the lights dim and the action begins, Anna is backstage resting, because she's already begun her descent into madness.

And Ceil, being the only sister who has left the house and found a husband, returns to try and convince Catherine to stick their sister in an institution.

It's all wonderfully complex, but the action never leaves the Reardens' living room. All the juicy stuff has already happened, out in the real world, not in the safe haven inside their mother's home, where some spectral motherly influences still affect the sisters. Especially Anna.

It's a deceptively simple plot, definitely not the kind of play that will ever be accused of breaking new dramatic territory. But, when a play stays on familiar ground, it usually forces the actors to step up. The cast, fortunately for us, paints a frighteningly realistic portrait of the pain and confusion buzzing through the Reardens' heads, exposing the play's more complicated--yet painfully subtle--layers. Margy Ragsdale is stellar as the emotionally disturbed Anna. Even her walk seems to convey mental instability, as if each step needs to be calculated with extreme precision. Windie Wilson portrays Ceil with the perfect air of pretension, just enough overconfidence to keep the character only slightly despicable. But it's Jill Bergeron's portrayal of Catherine that makes the show. Her sly wit and subtle penchant for sophomoric one-liners leaves the play with just enough bawdiness to make it enjoyable.

Yet behind Catherine's tough, calculated façade is the most existential mind in the play. We see the inner-workings from time to time, when she's alone with Anna, when the outside world is at its most distant.

The message is a simple one: Everyone is insane. And, at the same time, everyone has moments of genius. Too bad it isn't very easy to appreciate those fleeting moments of clarity.

This production, the first Theatre Knoxville Downtown production of 2007, is dedicated to the memory of Helen Lann, who was one of the theater's long-standing board members before her death last November. Fran Shea, the play's director, explains that Lann was the first to introduce her to the weird pathos of Miss Rearden Drinks a Little . "If she had lived," Shea writes in the playbill, "I'm sure she would have brought her own unique sensibilities and talents to this production."

What: Miss Rearden Drinks a Little