“Blur,” Melanie Marnich’s play about a teenager gradually losing her eyesight, suffers from a few debilitating problems of its own. It’s afflicted with a seriously overdeveloped sense of whimsy, for one, and also boasts a chronic case of artificiality. The prognosis is not good.
Unfolding in a sterile, unevocative box of blue linoleum (from Santo Loquasto) that serves to emphasize the play’s considerable distance from reality, “Blur” presents us with the plight of perky 17-year-old Dot DiPrima (Angela Goethals), who is afflicted with a condition that eventually will result in blindness. Although it’s infused with an offbeat contemporary sensibility, the play is essentially a variation on the tried-and-true “Dark Victory” formula, minus the fatal ending.
Dot is the only daughter of eccentric single mom Margaret (Polly Draper). Margaret reacts to the news of her daughter’s illness with peculiar bursts of aggression and denial that are typical of Marnich’s approach to her material, which is more attuned to achieving dramatic effects than plausibly conveying human beings’ responses to the troubles they face.
Throughout the play, kernels of anger and conflict seem dictated more by theatrical exigencies than emotional truth. So, for instance, when Dot discovers that her mother has lied about the disease’s genealogical descent — she’d told Dot it came through her (absent) father’s line, when in fact it descends only through the female gene — she reacts with shrill and irrational hysteria. (The provenance of the problem, after all, can’t affect its progress, as this smart and sensitive 17-year-old would know.)
But Dot’s ire serves the play’s need to get her out of the house, where alternating bouts of angst and affection between mother and daughter are growing dramatically stale, and into a menage with her new boyfriend Joey (the appealingly goofy Chris Messina), a fellow misfit who cleans cages at the zoo.
As if the oddball Joey, his harelipped, tomboyish friend Frankie and the increasingly madcap Margaret were not sufficient (the latter strikes up cutesy friendships with salesfolk at the end of 1-800 lines), Marnich also gives us a kooky priest who loses his faith as Dot begins losing her eyesight, a formulaic comic role that even the accomplished underplaying of Bill Raymond cannot redeem. The role of Margaret, meanwhile, might possibly be made palatable by a deft comedienne (Swoosie Kurtz, say), but in Draper’s more earthbound interpretation its eccentric flavor turns shrill.
Goethals is fairly endearing as the afflicted Dot, bringing a tough edge to her interpretation but still managing some moving moments. But she’s battling against a script that substitutes a carefully concocted whimsy for the sentimentality one might expect. That’s not necessarily an improvement.