Review: ‘When They Speak of Rita’

A lack of thematic evolution and dramatic tension undermine an otherwise sensitive portrait of rural New Hampshire housewife Rita, who struggles to establish her own identity within the tightly wound fabric of her supposedly simple life. The five-member ensemble needs more time in front of an audience to truly bring these complex characters to life.

A lack of thematic evolution and dramatic tension undermine an otherwise sensitive portrait of rural New Hampshire housewife Rita (Joanna Daniels), who struggles to establish her own identity within the tightly wound fabric of her supposedly simple life. Helmer Karen Landry guides Daisy Foote’s “When They Speak of Rita” with understated, finely tuned attention to detail, but the five-member ensemble needs more time in front of an audience to truly bring these complex characters to life.

Spanning 10 months in the fictional hamlet of Tremont, N.H., Foote’s chronicles the resolute discontent of low-key Rita. She cleans houses for a living and endures daily humiliation from her brusque, noncommunicative hubby, Asa (Dan Verdin), and emotionally volatile 19-year-old auto mechanic son, Warren (Scott Jackson). The fact that neither man is aware of his relentless disrespect and misuse of Rita makes her plight more pointedly tragic.

The only breaks from her domestic woes are the recurring visits from Warren’s not-too-bright buddy Jimmy (Michael Redfield) and her son’s highly intelligent high school senior girlfriend, Jeannie (Rachel Avery). Rita enjoys some ego gratification from Jimmy’s open adoration of her; but her unrequited aspirations are directed toward Jeannie, who has won a full scholarship to college.

When Jeannie opts for a post high school-life of marriage and babies with Warren, Rita’s fragile dream of creating some kind of meaning to her life is redirected toward Jimmy.

The inner workings of Rita’s plight are laid out with directness and honesty by Foote. The characters are quite believable in their motivations and reactions as Rita causes a revolution in everyone’s life via her actions with Jimmy.

What’s lacking is a sense of evolving drama or suspense. All the compelling action and plot points happen offstage, including Asa’s tribulations when he loses re-election as road agent to a wealthy, retired “California Man” who has taken up residence in the community.

Rita’s unhappiness is all of her own making. Since Foote gave Rita enough cognizance to recognize her life is lame, there needs to be more information about what she has learned from her experiences that will enable her to cope with the rest of her life.

Landry aims for all the right beats to move this story forward, but there is an annoying reticence in the ensemble. Daniels strikes a balance between dutiful stoicism and pained discontent as Rita, but her tendency to filter every motivation through an emotional obstacle course of tedious contemplation does little to clarify the journey she is traveling.

Verdin is also guilty of contemplative over-indulgence, but communicates well Asa’s Yankee reserve and testosterone-driven tendency to take his wife for granted.

Asa also is the most developed character in the production. He allows his ego to evolve as he realizes he could learn from the outsider who took his job and that he is willing to sublimate his machismo to do whatever it takes to keep Rita as his wife.

When They Speak of Rita

Pacific Resident Theater, Venice, CA; 40 seats; $23.50 top

Production

A Pacific Resident Theater presentation of a play in two acts by Daisy Foote. Directed by Karen Landry.

Creative

Sets, Zack Bunker; costumes, Audrey Eisner; lights, Kathi O'Donohue; sound, Keith Stevenson; music, Chris Mulkey. Opened, reviewed June 11, 2005; runs through Aug. 7. Running time: 2 HOURS.

Cast

Rita Potter - Joanna Daniels Asa Potter - Dan Verdin Warren Potter - Scott Jackson Jimmy Reeves - Michael Redfield Jeannie Lowell - Rachel Avery
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