The Gap, Azuka Theatre Company's 17th premiere production launching its second "Pay What You Decide" season, marks a brave step forward for young Philadelphia playwright Emma Goidel (Azuka's Local Girls, Orbiter 3's A Knee that Can Bend). The Gap's elegant structure offers an amusing look at family dynamics and revelations about an artist's efforts to explore her own life. It then surprises by segueing into deeper territory with daring and insight.
Rebecca Wright's production is framed by the gauzy curtains of Apollo Mark Weaver's translucent set. Masha Tsimring's subtle lighting (accented with actor-controlled clip lights) and Jorge Cousineau's dreamlike projections help tell the story of performance artist Lee (Maggie Johnson). Lee wants to explore her sister Nicole’s (Alice Yorke) belief that she was kidnapped by aliens in childhood.
The play grows through Johnson's commanding performance. Lee enlists student Nina (Ciera Gardner) to role-play Nicole and others, such as Lee's ex Ellie, as they improvise scenes from Lee's life. Lee also clashes with pregnant Nicole and her husband Rod (Jaime Maseda), and the sisters’ own befuddled mother (Genevieve Perrier); Lee has moved home to recover from "emotional heartburn."
Wright's talented ensemble balances the script's wry humor with Lee's frustration and inability to understand the past or control the present. Gently mocking Nicole and Rod's "pre-birth attachment parenting," Lee's awkward session with a New Age hypnotist, the family's confusion of Lee's solo performance art with "mime," and the alien question are all funny. But the humor doesn't obscure or dilute The Gap's more serious themes.
Goidel's script takes turns best left as surprises as Lee probes deeper, encountering resistance without and within herself. The Gap builds to a dramatically subtle climax, focusing more on its impact on the sisters' relationship than the revelation's impact. Knowing what happened, they discover, is not a solution — but it's a start.
While the surprises may resemble the layers of the play next door on the Drake's proscenium stage, InterAct's Broken Stones, there's an important difference. In Broken Stones, the reveal of a new reality negates the play's established universe, essentially robbing it of its meaning, while the final twist in The Gap completes our understanding not only of what happened but of what it means to the characters. Both plays attempt what theater does so well: they construct their own somewhat abstract reality, rooted in ours but shaped through imagination. They then alter it, inviting us to follow. Emma Goidel's The Gap does this very well indeed.