The set for “The Shape of Metal” tells its own compelling story. When the lights rise on Thomas Kilroy’s Irish family drama, designer Lex Liang shows us a tomb. Sure, it’s actually the studio where an aging sculptress tries to create her art, but her work has succumbed to the thick curtains shrouding the windows and the gnarled bits of scrap metal cluttering the floor. What a jolt, then, when the play leaves the present for a scene set in 1972, and the studio explodes into life.
Pulled by unseen strings, the curtains disappear, and a wall whisks back to expose a flowering garden. If the rest of the production were that crisp and surprising, it would be captivating. However, almost everything else is a mess.
In Kilroy’s script, for instance, the sculptress, Nell Jeffrey (Roberta Maxwell), and her two daughters — sensible Judith (Julia Gibson) and volatile Grace (Molly Ward) — are cut-rate Tennessee Williams heroines, stumbling through a domestic tragedy that never quite makes sense.
Grace, whose first name bluntly clarifies that she’s a symbol for fragile innocence, ran away 30 years ago for a secret reason, and Judith has been upset ever since. Grace’s memory still tortures Nell in her old age: The aud sees the girl standing behind her mother muttering broken, creepy phrases.
Kilroy’s drama is based on a standard-issue plot: Dark Family Secret Gets Revealed. But the secret is muddled, since Kilroy’s conclusion pretends it isn’t there.
Seconds after her mother’s climactic revelation makes her stomp off in fury, Judith returns, totally calm. She drops what she just heard about Grace’s past so she can praise her mother’s work and instigate a metaphorical conversation about beauty and survival.
Earlier versions of the play –first produced at the Abbey in 2003 — clarified the connection between the epilogue and why Grace fled, but in this version, the closing speeches sound irrelevant and self-indulgent.
The larger problem, though, is immobility. In “Suddenly, Last Summer,” Williams’ ode to buried shame, the character who knows the hidden truth could get lobotomized for revealing it. In “The Shape of Metal,” little can happen to Nell and Judith once the facts are known, so there are no stakes involved in keeping the secret.
Director Brian Murray’s work is similarly flat. Most scenes end where they begin, with anemic energy and actors translating every emotion into generalized exasperation.
Maxwell seems especially disinterested, rarely making eye contact with her co-stars or altering the “soft nouns-loud verbs” template she uses to deliver her lines. She can’t even muster passion for the flashback scene, when the script specifically references her wildness, leaving auds to wonder how Nell ever found the strength to send one of her daughters over the edge.