note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey
To his credit, playwright Michael Bettencourt has taken a headline "ripped from today's news" and embroidered on it --- philosophically, politically, dramatically --- without turning it into another episode of "Law and Order".
His "Pictures at an Exhibition" like Arthur Miller's "The Crucible", concerns itself with a matter of principle. Bettencourt then turns that principle on its head to show its reverberations and ramifications and "its place in the big picture", as the most thoughtful character in the play puts it.
You may remember the story: A local photographer was arrested when a photo store developed a roll of nude pictures of her four year old son and called the police. She chose thirty days in jail over a guilty plea and community service.
Act I has highly stylized characterizations of the media circus which ensued, even a Greek Chorus --- where act II is boldly naturalistic. Nevertheless the two halves fit together better than you'd imagine they would. What ties them together is bettencourt's intelligent and evocative language.
We meet the shocked family of the photographer in the first act, and her cellmate in the second. That second act is the stronger because we're allowed inside the characters (Act I is mostly exposition), and because Bettencourt has written a powerful role for the photographer's wary cellmate. He resists making her a stereotypical "tough cookie"; he makes his point about class (i.e. "principle" as a "privilege of class"), but does it ever so subtly.
Jacqui Parker plays this Vera Cortez as a smart lady, wounded and naive but wise in the ways of the world. When she warms to the photographer, Parker slowly reveals the woman's spirit. It's a masterful performance. Bettencourt borrowed another headline (the Hedda Nussbaum/Joel Steinberg child murder) for Vera's plight as a battered woman who didn't or couldn't save her own child from being beaten to death.
Elizabeth Duff as the photographer plays her character's strengths --- a strong will and a righteous indignation --- against the playwright's harsh judgement that she has sacrificed family for principle. Vera calls it "slumming" because her good life will still be there after thirty days. Joe Antoun's direction is deceptively simple and remarkably facile, keeping the relationship(s) in sharp focus.
The supporting cast does fine work in Act I. Douglass A. Flynn plays the loyal but conflicted husband with a roughhewn dignity. Peg Holzemer is quite amusing as a customer who doesn't trust Fuji Film, and then startlingly somber as an unsympathetic judge. E Grace Noonan is hilarious as a "townie" talk-radio caller, and appropriately menacing as a prison guard. Sarah Parker, Michael Ricca, George Saulnier III and Newell Young all do double-duty with aplomb.