With a little watering and some more sunlight, Lila Rose Kaplan’s “Wildflower” will grow up to be a mighty play about love and death. Short script has excellent roots, with firm characterizations and graceful dramaturgy that combine to give the text a surprising slickness (borne out in the all-pro production). But speaking of surprise, the piece so violently yanks the rug out from under the aud in its final minutes that some earlier, quieter nuances vanish in the shadow of the expert “gotcha!” Helmer Giovanna Sardelli draws killer perfs from the whole cast, especially Ron Cephas Jones and Quincy Dunn-Baker.
Randolph (Jake O’Connor), his mother Erica (Nadia Bowers) wants everyone to know, is “a genius, but we’re still working on manners.” The two have just moved to Crested Butte, Colo., a town where the flowers are plentiful, the rednecks are willowy and beautiful, and the teenagers are in heat. It’s a little bit Midwest-of-the-Mind, but it’s nothing to get bent out of shape over — Kaplan chooses a pastoral surrounding because she has some very specific plans, not because she has an ax to grind.
Both newcomers acquire a romantic pursuer in what feels like their first few minutes in town. Erica attracts the attentions of local ladykiller James (Dunn-Baker), a cowboy type with a gift for the wrong word and a great deal of aggression to compensate for what appears to be a genuine fear of womenfolk. Dunn-Baker’s portrayal nicely walks a thin line between churlish ignorance and amusingly innocent confusion.
As for Randolph’s, his mom’s de facto boss is a teenage girl named Astor (Renee Felice Smith) whose idea of a job interview is to ask, “Does your son have a boyfriend?”
Astor and Randolph’s courtship is fun to watch, with awkward, friendless Randolph at first unable even to register Astor’s unasked-for advances. She doesn’t mind, of course — by the middle of the play, Astor’s primary mode of communication with her crush has become an hourly verbal sucker punch in the form of a horrible sexual factoid (“Catherine the Great slept with a horse!” she proclaims to the home-schooled virgin).
O’Connor is very good as said virgin, looking both downcast and angry most of the time and speaking sincerely (at first) only to his plant, which reminds him of his deadbeat botanist dad. The first person who can actually get him to open up is Mitchell (Jones), who runs the inn where mother and son are staying, and whose unfailing kindliness would look silly on anyone else. It’s hard to play saintly and stay likable, but every movement of Jones’ body screams “backstory” — enough to fill another play on its own.
Set designer Steven C. Kemp has given Sardelli hugely overlapping playing spaces, which works perfectly here, keeping the piece intimate while maintaining separate locales.
The less said about the play’s big surprise, the better, but it’s worth noting that Kaplan’s groundwork is hard to criticize. Suffice to say that when the performance is over, you’re thinking more about whether you liked the ending than what it means for the characters, and that’s not necessarily a good thing. On the other hand, the decision runs gleefully counter to the play’s occasional undercurrent of whimsy, which is a good thing indeed.
On the whole, Kaplan’s capper is such a provocative one that it’s impossible not to recommend “Wildflower,” if only to stimulate conversation. Is the twist ending a fresh green shoot, or merely fertilizer?