note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
In his opening comments, Merrimack Repertory Theatre Artistic Director/Director Charles Towers tells the audience we are about to see the world premiere of acclaimed playwright Bob Clyman’s drama, “The Exceptionals”. He explains Clyman worked on the play for the past few years, making revisions, and that it’s still a work in progress, subject to more change.
“You’re the very first audience(s) to see this world premiere,” he says.
The two-hour, two-act drama involves two contrasting mothers of exceptionally bright 5-year-old sons (thanks to a fertility clinic’s sperm bank), inseminated by the same donor, who were chosen to participate in an elite school for intellectually superior children, and the sacrifices they must make for their sons’ future.
The premise takes an inductive approach and is vaguely explained in Act I. We must wade through indirect references to what’s occurring, who these people are, and why they’re in a doctor’s waiting room and office. We also wonder why two mothers, who appear competitive and obviously dislike each other, are intellectually superior but behave like playpen adversaries.
Gwen, an uptight divorcee, is a molecular biologist going for her Ph.D. She dresses drably and exhibits intensified nervousness. Her foil, Allie, is tawdry, flamboyantly dressed, and talks at times with a Brooklyn, New Jersey, or no accent - it changes frequently. Although Allie is intellectually superior, she didn’t finish college and “dumbs down” for the sake of her husband, Tom, who is dyslexic and works in the calibrations industry. Tom, who is also sterile, is a nice man, who’s obviously uncomfortable and insecure raising his brilliant 5-year-old son, Michael. He yearns for another child who is average, like himself.
The three are inextricably interwoven at a fertility clinic, set in the near future, where Dr. Claire, the smug parent liaison coordinator, informs them about their sons’ future with the program.
The play is set in designer Judy Gailen’s sanitized-looking waiting room and office. Sound designer Jason E. Weber’s crashing musical interludes and designer Brian Lilienthal’s lighting separate scenes as tension mounts, while Claire attacks the two mothers’ weak points while outlining the clinic’s stipulations.
Claire (portrayed well by Judith Lightfoot Clarke) appears to be insensitive, unfeeling, goal oriented and controlling, with her own personality quirks, such as making the women carry their chairs from the waiting room and into her office, because she “dislikes clutter”.
Act I moves slowly, as the audience tries to fit pieces of this puzzle together. Carolyn Baeumler as Gwen talks too fast, at times running her words together inaudibly, while Catherine Eaton is outstanding as Allie -“rough around the edges,” as Claire describes her. Indeed, Allie’s husband Tom, (sensitively portrayed by Joseph Tisa), displays his feelings of inadequacies, yet he’s loving, caring, and understanding.
Like Allie, Merrmimack Rep’s production of “The Exceptionals” has a fascinating premise, but the script is rough around the edges.
BOX INFO: World premiere of two-act, two-hour play, written by Bob Clyman, appearing through March 6 at Merrimack Repertory Theatre, 50 E. Merrimack St., Lowell. Performances are Wednesdays. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m.; Fridays at 8 p.m.; Saturdays. 4,8 p.m.; Sundays, 2,7 p.m.; Sunday, March 6, at 2 p.m. only. Post-show forum, Feb. 24,March 3, after 7:30 p.m. show. Tickets begin at $25; group, senior, student discounts. Call 978-654-4678 or visit www.MerrimackRep.org.