theater review

Theater Review: The Dizzying Whirl of a Messy Texas Family in Plano

From Plano, at the Connelly Theater. Photo: Elke Young

Will Arbery’s wonderfully unsettling Plano is a kind of inside-out play: it goes so far into the uncanny, protean mind’s eye that it comes out the other side, revealing all sorts of disturbing social truths. Directed in a focused rush of fight-or-flight energy by Taylor Reynolds, Plano appeared in Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks Festival last year. Now it returns for a run at the Connelly, where its thrilling oddities have a bit more elbow room and the scruffy Astroturf lawn of Daniel Zimmerman’s set spills over the lip of the theater’s fantastic old proscenium stage. Arbery grew up in Texas as “the only boy with seven sisters,” and in the taut, wily Plano, he turns a fun-house mirror onto certain aspects of that autobiography.

The play’s three sisters — related to those of Chekhov inasmuch as they’re stuck as hell — inhabit a couple of bleak suburban houses outside Dallas as well as a shared, haunted mindscape. Anne (Crystal Finn) is the oldest, a professor with a husband named John (Cesar J. Rosado) — actually it’s Juan, but he’s “always wanted to be John” — who may or may not be gay and may or may not have married her for a green card. Isabel (Susannah Flood) is the youngest: devout, self-sacrificing, possibly anorexic, and never as “fine” as she claims. Genevieve (Miriam Silverman) is in the middle. A sculptor with a straying husband called Steve (Ryan King), she’s the kind of driven, skeptical caregiver whose concern comes off as bullying. “Don’t fuck up your life,” she snaps at both of her sisters, a warning that’s more personal than she lets on.

So far, so domestic — but Reynolds and her actors immediately bring the play’s rapid, trippy rhythms and its Tilt-A-Whirl sense of reality to the fore. “Talk as though your life depended on it. Now,” Genevieve demands as she and her sisters huddle on her porch together, and indeed, Arbery’s characters behave as if they’re always following similar orders. At least, the women do. If Genevieve, Anne, and Isabel stop talking, they might blink out like tiny lights, but John, Steve, and a frightening male figure known only as the Faceless Ghost (Brendan Dalton) can come or go, speak or not speak, as they please. But whatever their literal physical wanderings, the sisters — and, as the play’s harrowing climax reveals, their mother, Mary (Mary Shultz) — are trapped, clinging desperately to each other in a world where the edges of sanity, possibility, and agency are steadily crumbling.

If you live in this world, time flies when you’re having the opposite of fun, and though we laugh as Anne rattles breathlessly through a sequence like, “We’re going down to Juarez for New Year’s … See you later. It’s later. Juarez was wonderful” — the hairs on the backs of our necks stand up. Something’s out of joint. The world hurtles forward yet nothing moves. People split and shift and disappear to Plano (“Stop saying Plano, I hate Plano,” Genevieve snaps) as if it’s some kind of psychological wormhole, not a town but, as the stoners say, a state of mind. The mundane slips ever closer to the nightmarish — indeed, the sisters hardly know the difference between their memories and their nightmares. Soon enough, there are two Steves, one who’s left Genevieve for an intern (and whose “new thing is now intersectional feminism”) and one who’s still lurking — lumpish, sulky, and terrifying — around her house. There’s John, slippery and unknowable as a deep-sea creature, who unblinkingly assures Anne that, though there are many more of him (“All the mes … All around. Everywhere”), he “keeps them invisible” and she’ll “never need to know where they go.” And there’s that ghost, faceless, needy, and menacing — and hellbent on keeping Isabel in the theater. He wrestles her back onto the stage when she panics and tries to make a metatheatrical break for it. As Isabel discovers, say “Plano” enough times and it starts to warp into “Play — No.”

The chronology of events in Arbery’s play is less significant than the feeling of cyclical vertigo it induces. Yes, there are marriages, pregnancies, divorces, moves away and moves back, but Plano isn’t a line but a loop. The zealous, well-meaning Mary has bequeathed to her daughters certain diseases of the soul — from Genevieve’s repressed rage and Isabel’s physical and spiritual dysmorphia to Anne’s self-erasing ability, when someone asks her about herself, to “smile and deftly make it about them” — and in adulthood the girls are caught up playing out patterns that have become prisons. “I feel made up, and I feel like I had no hand in that making up,” says Anne. “I don’t know why I’m suddenly a mother, and a wife. And I don’t know why I’m suddenly 35. I love and hate everyone, I scream in my car, I scream at my kid, I’m afraid of saying anything to John that will make him hate me. I want everything to be okay.” Genevieve puts her finger on the injustice of the sisters’ plight: Somehow, they seem to recede in their suffering, while the men expand in theirs — literally proliferating because one body isn’t enough for all their feelings. “Why can’t I be the one who has two bodies?” Genevieve growls. “Me and the other me? One body gives a fuck, the other body doesn’t give a fuck.” Her ambition thwarted, her identity blurring, she laments in one of the play’s most piercing moments, “I wish when I looked to the future I saw me, standing alone with the things I’ve made.”

Silverman, Finn, and Flood feed each other, and feed off each other, with electric energy and precision. They create a pulsing, spinning three-atom molecule at the center of the play, which is as funny as it is powerfully disturbing. “I wish there had never been a Steve!,” Genevieve howls in frustration to her sisters. “And I wish there’d never been that fucking Norwegian book. What’s it called? The one that enabled him? About the white guy struggling?” And if you think that’s good, just wait till one of Knausgård’s actual 900-page coffee-table bricks shows up as a hilariously deadly prop. Reynolds and her choreographer Kelly Bartnik, backed by Tyler Kieffer’s shifting, eerie soundtrack, put together a series of sinister dream ballets, and even when the sisters meet in full daylight, that nighttime sense of running — running without stopping from some monster, toward some cliff — is still there.

As we left, the friend who saw Plano with me compared it to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. She’s right. Both have a way of presenting as “quirky” before you really get to know them, and both, if you had to give them a genre, are actually much closer to horror. The horror of the internal landscape and the way the world has somehow surreptitiously cultivated it without our consent. With its mysterious plagues and its slug infestations, its multiplying men and its cornered, fighting women, its sense that the drab, weird, grossly unfair universe is always on the edge of an apocalypse that never comes, Plano is a fiercely smart contemporary dream play — to paraphrase Ursula Le Guin, a “realism of a larger reality.”

Plano is at the Connelly Theater.

Theater Review: A Dizzying, Messy Texas Family in Plano