Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Miss Price"

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note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Larry Stark

"Miss Price"

by John Kuntz
Directed by Eric C. Engel

Set Design by Susan Zeeman Rogers
Lighting Design by Karen Perlow
Original Music/Sound Design by Dewey Dellay
Costume Design by Anna-Alisa Belous
Production Stage Manager Aimee Ricciardone

Eleanor Shields.....................Paula Plum

I know these people far too well. I don't just mean John Kuntz and Paula Plum, who between them have defined the best Boston acting for some years now --- I mean not just all the people John has written into existence (for himself and for others), all the people Paula has been, but all those others: the figments these masterful solo-performers have talked to, listened to, confided in, insulted --- and loved. In this, his newest play for one performer, I can hear the lines and rhythms John Kuntz could play himself, quick switches mostly in temperature that etch the non-existent auditor in shocked relief; but there are others, moments of intent listening which only Paula Plum's eyes could fill with meaning.

Anything I say about this now --- Anything! --- will spoil the experience of it for anyone lucky enough to get a seat in the high, narrow Boston Playwrights' Theatre where this miracle comes alive; so you have a decision to make: pick up the phone and put this review aside till later, or read on and see only my faint reflections of the artistry involved.
Choose carefully.

All right then:
First, Miss Price is the new assistant (third in less than two months) with whom Eleanor Shields (Paula Plum) grudgingly shares her small New England town library --- not because she thinks she needs any assistance, but because assistance is forced upon her. Miss Shields is very much a territorial bird whose every morning ritual movement, from the click of her key opening her domain to the dunk-dunk-dunk of her morning tea-bag, the peremptory dismissal of her invalid mother's trivial phone-pleadings, the re-carding and re-shelving, and even the top-of-her-lungs primal scream exactly one minute before official opening --- all of it could be choreographed. At one point, it actually is.

Of course Miss Price is a vague figure --- only a few intimate details surprise or interest her superior. A younger Californian weird enough to move to the first town her finger found with closed eyes, perhaps in flight from a Miss Coles who only leaves tearful phone-messages, she meddles when trying to be helpful, smiles too often and enigmatically, wears too much perfume, presumes to clean a window perfectly fine the way it is, and probably makes faces behind Miss Shields' back --- or are these pure projections of a lonely old maid's inability to accept, however hesitantly, the friendship of a fellow human being? Miss Shields' world is much too small to be shared, at least at the outset, and this latest intruder lasts only a fortnight before giving two weeks' notice. But that month of growing, grudging, bookish intimacy leaves its softening mark. At play's end a shaft of sunlight through that suddenly clearer window spangles Miss Shields' domain with prismatic color, shining through a bit of glass from her newly-dead mother's chandelier.
Her world will never be the same.

And that's the What of "Miss Price"; the How is a little harder to explain.

Paula Plum SEES Miss Price, for one thing. She may not really listen, but she hears her. Early on she rushes through the very precise rules of library routines, explaining them to yet a third no doubt unsatisfactory intruder, nipping responses in the bud, brooking no comment. She marches through her morning ritual with a ramrod-straight back, pitched resolutely forward from the instep, desk and coat-rack and teacup so precisely spaced she need only stretch a hand to have it fall, unthinking, exactly where it should. And she is dead serious when glaring that the only things that annoy her are sound and motion and anyone in Her library --- including the "help" --- must avoid them at all costs. It's books rather than people she really loves.

Plum and her director Eric C. Engel put "Miss Price" in the high-rise, narrow second stage at The Boston Playwrights' Theatre, to focus the intimate audience. And Susan Zeeman Rogers filled that cockpit of a stage with all the realistic appurtenances of a working library: a long wall of precisely shelved books twelve feet high with a ladder on rails for access; real pencils on a real desk to be resharpened daily in and old hand-crank sharpener hung on the wall; an antiquated card-file, a working-desk with orange due-slips to be date-stamped and replaced, and a night-deposit slot through which only their occasional hands evidence the existence at all of any book borrowers. The front door must be mimed, but the set is that sort of triumph of verisimilitude that demands spontaneous applause in theatres (unlike this one) that raise a curtain to begin a play.

The costumes by Anna-Alisa Belous are precisely fitted to character. Miss Shields' suit is wool, gray with a tinge of green, carefully cut around the hips and the skirt a precise half an inch below the knee-caps to show seamless stockings and sensible shoes. The collar of her white blouse and suit-jacket are close about Plum's long neck, and the tight hair-net pulls it tightly back away from the expressive oval of her sculptured face, and the lively eyes she uses so expertly. Reading-glasses, when not perched on the very tip of her nose hang about Miss Sheilds' neck in conflict with the key, on a blue ribbon, that unlocks her desk. Her shapeless all-weather coat is also gray, with a tinge of blue, and easily thrown on or off to signal the starts and ends of several working days. Miss Price, I imagine, is slightly less subdued though librarian-bland in a wardrobe a bit more varied, a bit more youthful.

Karen Perlow's lights feature a dramatic slash of early sunlight down through that half-circle of high window stage-right onto Rogers' pale-blue back wall, then the area-lighting Miss Sheilds' turns on every morning with three green-marked wall switches. The steep lighting emphasizes the height of the library's book-crammed walls, and it waits patiently for that magic morning when, through a dangle of glass, the light drops a shaft of pure colors so startling into this world as to send some rapt spectators into tears.

For it is all the details here that fit together, from the finely detailed script to the music Dewey Dellay has provided to accompany and emphasize the ballet of opening that begins each scene.

The music doesn't stand out --- no detail does --- but adds its color and emphasis to the portrait being painted. Whose brush-strokes are whose, was it a sentence or a gesture or a pause that added to the whole --- all that is an unknowable and really irrelevant mystery. Did Eric C. Engel just leave these ladies alone to find themselves? Did he carve the statue Kuntz and Plum only hinted at? His curse is that a director's work, in a play as fine as this one is, is precisely, beautifully invisible.

But there's one more week for you to look for it.


"Miss Price" (11 - 26 January)
949 Commonwealth Avenue, BOSTON, MA
1 (617) 358-7529

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide