Creating suspense has to be one of the most difficult effects for a play to achieve.
In movies, the complex use of sound effects, special lighting and music can all heighten that tension, along with some camera-lens trickery and a lot of cleverly timed editing. Yet at the Pearl McManus Theater in Palm Springs, the Desert Ensemble Theatre Company has produced one of the most jaw-dropping, edge-of-seat, suspenseful live plays you will ever see—with absolutely none of those fancy assists.
Adoption Roulette uses only three actors and a black-box theater setting … literally: There are four black wooden boxes that get shuffled around the stage to be used as imaginary chairs, a desk, or a seat on an airplane, against the black-curtained background. There is no scenery except a minimalist white-pipe impression of a couple of rooftops to imply an urban setting. The show uses the most basic lighting, zero sound effects, no props and few costume changes.
But Adoption Roulette will fry your mind.
To accomplish this kind of theater experience, you obviously require a great script—and artistic director Jerome Elliott can take credit for its discovery. At the theater, we were introduced to one of the playwrights, Joel Vig, and we chatted briefly about his bringing to life this true story, authored along with the woman who actually lived it, Elizabeth Fuller. The result is a magnificent and tightly written play that starts off so innocently that you can’t possibly dream of what lies ahead.
This nice American couple, Liz and Reuel (pronounced “rule”), want to adopt a child—specifically, a little girl. They find intolerable roadblocks and insufferable delays with the adoption system in the United States, so they investigate adopting a child from Russia, where it is apparently a little easier and faster. What happens to them during the winter of 2004 as a result is … unthinkable. This is truly one of the most surprising scripts you will ever see—and DETC is presenting it for the first time ever: This is Adoption Roulette’s world premiere!
Shawn Abramowitz directs this two-hour, two-act show, and for his cast, he has shrewdly collected the considerable talents of Yo Younger, Fergus Loughnane and Adina Lawson. Younger plays the key role of Elizabeth (Liz) Fuller, while Loughnane plays her husband, Reuel—as well as four other parts. Lawson gets to play a total of seven supporting roles.
The bulk of the work falls on the delicate shoulders of Younger. As the hope-filled Elizabeth, this actress must make us empathize with her decisions and accept her rationalizations, regardless of whether life is sunny or otherwise. She draws us in slowly but surely, gradually raising the tension of her frustrations to a pitch that becomes almost unbearable. Watching her, particularly in the second act, you forget to breathe; you forget she is an actress; and you forget you are watching a play. Some of Younger’s lines are spoken directly to the audience as a narration of the events, and she makes it seem perfectly natural for her to step outside the action and explain it to us, then slide effortlessly back into her role. Younger’s extraordinary performance is not to be missed—and I pray that her vocal cords can stand up through the run of the play. Just to watch her hands is a study; it is beautiful work.
Loughnane plays her husband as an engaged and reasonable man with naturally sound instincts and the good judgment that is born of experience. He is fully believable as Reuel, and his concentration and focus are admirable. In sharp contrast, he also plays Igor, a cab driver with attitude. He creates a colorful and likable character—a chain smoker and a Willie Nelson aficionado (Psssst! Don’t forget to exhale that smoke!)—who pops up frequently through the play. He also plays a smoothly handsome airline pilot and a scary agency official as well, though they are less-explored characters.
Adina Lawson has waaaay too much fun romping through her seven yummy roles. Some are better defined than others, but her strange blonde, Olenka, is unforgettable. It is her largest part, and she has mined it well, creating a rich character who keeps us baffled as to whether she is friend or foe. She also brings to life a briefly hilarious Nurse Blatovsky and a fascinating Russian judge (an homage to Judge Judy) we wish had more stage time. She also plays several American ladies and a spokeswoman, characters who appear too seldom for us to get to know very well. It’s fun to see an actress relishing her creations.
Abramowitz’s direction is to be admired. The skillful and measured increase in the play’s tension is meted out perfectly; I shudder to think of what the director and his cast went through in rehearsals. The only possible criticism to make involves the use of mime, a staple of black-box theater and staged readings. As they speak on the phones, some actors are “holding” a phone, while others are just talking out to the audience … in the same conversation. Usually, the actors all do it the same way, with “phones” or without. It’s a small point, but worth mentioning, as it happened frequently. Other than that, the blocking is beautiful; the actors speak clearly; the theater’s new lighting is well-used; and the show is … amazing.
If you have ever experienced what qualifies as a living nightmare, this play will wring memories and feelings out of you. If you haven’t, it will horrify you to observe what you luckily have been spared. Either way, you cannot watch this cautionary tale without reacting to it—it’s that involving.
As adoptive parents of an endangered (and darling) desert tortoise, we went to the theater expecting a play that would make us feel all warm and fuzzy about the good we were creating through participating in adoption, even with “just” an animal.
Wrong. Go see this play … and brace yourself for a goose-bump-raising experience beyond your imagination.
Adoption Roulette, a production of Desert Ensemble Theatre Company, is performed at 7 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 2 p.m., Saturday and Sunday, through Sunday, Feb. 9, at the Pearl McManus Theater at the Palm Springs Woman’s Club, 314 S. Cahuilla Road, in Palm Springs. Tickets are $28. For tickets or more information, call 760-565-2476, or visit www.detctheatre.org.