K-State production of ‘A Nervous Smile’ dramatic, arresting

Gary Clift

By A Contributor

In K-State’s haunted Purple Masque Theater last week, the interested saw a talented and well-rehearsed cast of students perform the late John Belluso’s “A Nervous Smile” The action was dramatic, the characters original, the lighting evocative, and the acting energetic and daring.

So there was no reason to sell the entertainment as being topical. The story is about the secondary effects of cerebral palsy.

But the action is actually about selfishness or self-preservation. Brian (Ross Stone) and Eileen (Diana Watts) are a wealthy couple who have a teenaged daughter with CP. While attending a “support group” for sufferer’s parents, they have met Nicole (Kristina Gent) and her husband. The second couple is less well-off and their son less communicative. As the story opens, the divorced Nicole has come back to Brian and Eileen’s after an evening of cocktails.

Now Eileen is obviously inebriated. Watts, a very physical actress, has her character imitating birds and making enough generally snarky comments that we mistrust her first. Soon audience members learn to mistrust all the characters. When Eileen leaves the room for hostess duties, we discover that Brian and Nicole are secretly lovers.

Or maybe not that secretly. He has been talking with Eileen about a plan to reset all their lives. Heiress Eileen will split her money with her husband and they will split, in more ways than one. She will change her name and disappear into London. He will fly to Argentina with Nicole.

And what will happen to the two dependent children? Oddly, Eileen doesn’t plan to leave the two million she has set aside for Emily’s support to the girl’s attendant Blanka (Maria Arvanitakis). Instead Brain will bribe the Russian woman to look the other way while Emily’s parents leave her at a hospital emergency room.

Nicole’s son will simply be left with his father, who will be called from the airport as the runaway couple take flight for Buenos Aires. Nicole agrees to the plan but, in the second set, is too anxious to sleep. She returns to her lover’s apartment and hears from Blanka about Emily’s technology-assistant poetry, which we will later hear read in a voice that begins like an audio collage and morphs into expressions of a human voice (actually Olivia Sieck’s voice).

So how much potential do these sufferers have? Apparently quite a bit, and this makes the parents’ decision to abandon their off-spring all the more damaging. But wait. Do the three adults flit? In the last set we see Eileen with a court-required ankle bracelet, back at the apartment. Nicole comes for a visit. Blanka is back to take over some of the care of Emily if government powers allow her mother to regain custody.

And Brian, in one of the show’s dim-lighting passages, appears on-stage as he walks the South American streets, delivering the second of his soliloquies. The play suggests we should pity him. But audience members must also wonder if they don’t despise him.

They may also wonder what sort of legal jeopardy the mothers face for what they have actually done, as opposed to what they would have deserved if they had actually gone. These kinds of concerns may be as significant as the ones the playwright seemed to have intended us to worry over—the unhappy on-going servitude of the relations of those suffering from really serious medical conditions.

Director LeAnn Meyer kept the show moving (eliminating intermission, for example) and merged the outstanding work of her actors with the good set and lighting and sound and costumes to get an arresting production out of this dramatic script.

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