Review: ‘What’s Wrong with This Picture?’

For several years running, the Bay Area's most exciting theatrical terrain has been that of solo performance -- highlighted by the ever-expanding Solo Mio Festival, and by such rising talents as Anna Deveare Smith, Marga Gomez, Anne Galjour and Josh Kornbluth. To that honor roll one can add Grace Walcott, whose "What's Wrong With This Picture?" is a coming-of-age saga that's alternately hilarious and scarifying.

For several years running, the Bay Area’s most exciting theatrical terrain has been that of solo performance — highlighted by the ever-expanding Solo Mio Festival, and by such rising talents as Anna Deveare Smith, Marga Gomez, Anne Galjour and Josh Kornbluth. To that honor roll one can add Grace Walcott, whose “What’s Wrong With This Picture?” is a coming-of-age saga that’s alternately hilarious and scarifying.

The show suffered from a weak, throwaway ending in its ’91 Solo Mio bow. Current edition scores mixed success in correcting that flaw. But package still offers an impressive gander at Walcott’s strengths as both energized, tensely comedic actor and tersely observant playwright.

Thinly veiled autobiographical scenario is a mother-daughter history fraught with extreme behavior. Fathered — probably — by Mom’s onetime shrink, young Anna is raised in a Boston suburb by Amanda, who, as sketched by Walcott, is an unforgettable character — part fiercely “independent” woman with wolflike matriarchal protectiveness, part unhinged vulgarian who reads her “poems” (about bowels, orgasms and myriad male pals) aloud at the kitchen table.

Dizzily comic early scenes flash through Anna’s formative years. Amanda careens her Chevy Wagoneer from one department store to another in search of the perfect first-day-of-fourth-grade dress (telling a traffic cop she’s driving the kid to leukemia treatment).

Such excesses of devotion grow darker as Anna matures. Eventually, cervical cancer makes Mom needier than ever. Anna feels the umbilical cord wrapping around her throat, closing down escape hatches.

At this point, the svelte Walcott sheds her mechanic’s jumpsuit to reveal a glistening-red body stocking, the better to illustrate Anna’s masochistic fixation on body image as teenage rebellion. Stuck caring for Mom, Anna gulps over-the-counter speed, yells at her Weight Watchers counselor and gains major poundage on her “diet” thanks to junk-treat binges.

Where narrative once ended with an abrupt, jokey tag, “What’s Wrong” now goes on to limn Anna’s pregnancy and marriage, and Amanda’s beyond-the-grave control. These additions suffer most by abruptly diverging from show’s p.o.v.

Still, Walcott delivers complex, edgy family dynamics with zest and acuity here. One only wishes she were a little more prolific. “What’s Wrong” is just her second evening-length script (following the delightful feminist-revenge fantasy “Grace Under Pressure”), and it’s been around awhile. Thankfully, a new show (“Redressa”) is skedded for June workshopping at S.F.’s the Marsh.

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Climate Theater, San Francisco; 49 seats; $ 12 top

Production

A Climate Theater and Grace Walcott presentation of a solo performance in one act, written and performed by Walcott. Directed by Mary Forcade.

Creative

Set design, Henry Gutman; lighting, Dave Gebhard, David Holcomb. Artistic directors, Joegh Bullock, Marcia Crosby. Opened, reviewed April 22, 1994. Running time: 1 HOUR,15 MIN.
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