As we learn in Theatre Exile’s production of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Really, photography doesn’t always accurately capture its subject. As the character known only as Girlfriend muses, “I think it might be difficult to actually take the photograph of what you’re picturing.”
The same difficulty is evident in Theatre Exile’s production of the 2016 drama, which begins with a meeting between Girlfriend (Jessica Johnson) and Mother (Nancy Boykin), each identified only by their relationship with artist Calvin (Matteo Scammel), who has apparently died. Narrative facts are in short supply in this 70-minute meditation.
Director Brenna Geffers’s production wallows in the play’s abstractions. What begins as a tense and quiet meeting — Mother shows up in Calvin and Girlfriend’s apartment to have her picture taken, we know not why — turns into a twisting puzzle of flashbacks.
Thom Weaver’s tall, all-white set (a box reaching up to the Latvian Society stage’s ceiling, painted white, with only an old chair and dresser plus a few boxes) feels antiseptic and otherworldly. No characters wear shoes on the white-fabric-covered floor, adding to its eeriness.
Chris Sannino’s sound takes us further into abstraction, not only amplifying the camera shutter’s clicks but adding low thumps, thrums, and rumbles, with some elongated piercing tones. When used to underscore dramatic moments, these prove effective, but they occur so often and so randomly that they cry wolf. Amanda Jensen’s lighting, likewise, ranges in intensity but without apparent purpose.
Each woman has a Calvin-shaped hole in her heart, but we never find out where they’ve been, or are, or might go in their grief. Moments of friction suggest they blame each other. Mother says, “You didn’t love him correctly.” Girlfriend replies, “I didn’t raise him.” No revelations emerge.
Part of the problem is that Calvin was a jerk. Flashbacks reveal a slovenly mid-morning whiskey drinker who, in a jealous snit, burned Girlfriend’s books — though she excuses the act by imagining he actually gave them away.
Beyond commonplace childhood tantrums and sullen teenage rebellion, adult Calvin berates Mother for not listening well enough: “You should listen to me more,” he commands. What a guy.
I listened to him more and found his belief in his own artistic greatness insufferable. We see none of his art. The handful of photos Mother peruses are solid black. Once again, we meet a fictional character we’re supposed to believe is a rare talent, merely because he says so while behaving badly. It’s even more aggravating that he does it while condescendingly explaining to Girlfriend the reasons she will never achieve greatness.
The play’s last minutes are lifted by Girlfriend’s efforts to teach Mother how to use a camera. A final heartfelt speech in which Girlfriend appears to understand herself, and Mother, and photography, adds new insight. For a brief moment, Johnson’s emotional honesty and clarity bring some focus to Really. And then, click, it ends.