The inaugural LCT3 production at the Claire Tow Theater says a lot about the kind of workshop projects that Lincoln Center plans to showcase in the intimate new house it built atop the Beaumont Theater. “Slowgirl,” the haunting two-hander by Greg Pierce that fits so snugly into this exceptionally beautiful and well-equipped space, watches a friendship grow between a troubled teen and her ascetic uncle. Show is also a strong indicator that plays coming out of LCT3 development will be smart, carefully crafted, of high interest to younger audiences but still a safe choice for core subscribers.
Tech values are sky high for a tertiary-stage production. Designers Rachel Hauck (sets), Japhy Weideman (lighting) and Leah Gelpe (sound) have created the perfect environment for the wooden cabin where Sterling (Zeljko Ivanek) lives in Costa Rica. Vertical planks painted vivid shades of green represent the jungle that surrounds this open-air shack on all sides. Bird calls, very close and often quite piercing, suggest the teeming wildlife in this tropical paradise. And subtle shades of slanting golden light follow the sun’s slow passage from morning into night.
After a nine-hour flight from the States, Becky (Sarah Steele), Sterling’s 17-year-old niece and godchild, is astounded by her uncle’s primitive living conditions. “I’m in the jungle. You live in the jungle,” she keeps saying in tones of awe — or possibly horror.
“I get lonely but never bored,” Sterling assures his chatty niece, who has been suspended from school and is spending a week with him to contemplate her sins. But his assurances don’t ring true.
In Ivanek’s exquisitely precise and detailed perf, Sterling is clearly someone who hasn’t had much human contact in the nine years he’s been living like a hermit. His spine is chronically curled, his glance is directed downward, and his speech patterns are so raggedly uneven, it’s obvious that he’s gotten out of the humanizing habit of talking.
Becky makes up for that by talking enough for both of them and anyone else who might be living in the jungle. With her string of credits, Steele can’t be as young as she looks, but she has the appearance, the attitude and the machine-gun vocal inflections of the schoolgirl she plays.
Pierce loves language, and language loves him back. Lucky for him, helmer Anne Kauffman has a gift for language herself, respecting both its power of revelation and its use as a defining character trait.
In ways that are revealed in the course of the play, both uncle and niece have looked down the “black hole” of the soul and stepped back in terror. So while they express themselves in entirely different idioms, they use language in exactly the same way — to hide behind.
Sterling methodically doles out his words like lethal weapons, not letting any of them get away from him or giving a single one away. Becky does the opposite, spinning long skeins of words that she knits into a blanket to pull over her head.
It’s a genuine thrill to watch two fine actors work their way around their characters’ verbal defenses and meet in a place where emotional contact is finally possible. And it’s incredibly heartening that Lincoln Center chose to open its new theater with such a subtle play.