Disrupting further this tenuous household is Maureen (Anne Scurria), Countess’ long-absent daughter, who stumbles home strung-out, sick and zombie-eyed. Played by Scurria with a voice shaky enough to register on the Richter scale, Maureen, coughing blood and facing death, begs her mother-from-hell to raise her young son. While Countess is deciding what to do, Maureen moves in and, per Countess’ demands, sets about 12-stepping.
At its core, “The Hope Zone” is a mother-daughter blame-fest, with wounds cruelly reopened — Countess is haunted by the long-ago death of the young son who drowned while she lay drunk on a beach — but Heelan also wants to investigate such weighty issues as individual moral responsibility, transcendent faith and the redemption of love.
While he’s pondering his ideas, Heelan, who successfully wove race issues throughout his slice-of-life drama “Distant Fires,” here seems to forget minor inconveniences: plot, comprehensible dialogue, credible character development. Exactly where is Maureen’s young son? What on Earth attracts Countess to the piggishly cruel Newton (badly miscast and unconvincingly played), and what’s the point (beyond the playwright’s self-conscious whim) of stylizing the speech to the extent that, during one 20-minute stretch, Newton seems to end every other sentence with the phrase “type of thing,” then just as quickly drops the verbal mannerism?
And what’s to be made of the pseudo-mystical babble that has Veeche teaching Countess how to save her dying daughter? That the ritual involves the drinking of Maureen’s probably HIV-tainted blood is the most blatant grotesquerie in what has devolved into an ugly, cruel play. In “The Hope Zone,” brutal honesty is merely brutal, and only the most generous observer will excuse the nastiness by saying it’s Heelan’s artistic intention.
Had Richard Jenkins directed the play in a more lyrical style, the abundant crudeness might seem more subtly menacing, certainly more interesting. Instead, he literally and figuratively turns the house lights up throughout the play, and places the audience in chairs and sofas within the performance space, the better , unfortunately, to witness the indignity of Dukakis slipping the panties from under her dress while spewing an astoundingly silly sexual come-on.
The cast is unable to make credible dialogue that is studded with “uh,””OK” and bizarre syntax. Dukakis fares best, mostly by avoiding the hyper-mannered style that makes everyone else look actorly during supposedly gut-wrenching moments. But even Dukakis can’t mouth a B-movie line like “There’s nothing more pathetic than a sot in the Hope Zone” without resorting to melodramatic delivery. Sam Spade, drink your heart out.