Eighteen-year-old Evie is reputed to be one of the top students in her New Jersey high school, but you wouldn’t know it from her college interviews. She tells the Princeton interviewer that she applied to the Ivy League school because her guidance counselor “thought I might get in.” She tells the Dartmouth interviewer that he applied there to see if the school is worth attempting suicide for. (Someone she knows tried to off himself when the school rejected him.) As for Yale, she tells the boy next door that she can’t remember whether she applied there or not.

Evie (Jill Renner), the central figure in Dawn O’Leary’s Island Of Brilliance, has grown up in the shadow of her idiot savant older sister Emily (Ava Bogle), who despite an IQ of 40 remains the apple of her mother’s eye, perhaps because Mom (Nancy Linehan Charles) blames herself for her born-normal daughter’s mental retardation, the result of a fall at the age of one. Heck, Evie’s mother Martha has not even once accompanied her younger daughter on a college visit. How’s that for showing favoritism?

Strangely enough, Evie seems not to mind playing second fiddle to Emily, with whom she spends hours reading childrens’ stories like The Emperor’s New Clothes, tales which Emily can recite from start to finish, word for word. Though Emily can’t read, can’t even dress herself, her memorization skills extend to the entire text of Hamlet, but don’t get her started because once she begins, she won’t stop till the entire court of Denmark is dead.

Although Emily can’t comprehend the meaning of the stories she recites (they’re only sounds for her), something strange has been happening lately. She has started reciting poems that no one in her family has ever heard before, a phenomenon which goes against the accepted belief that savants are capable only of repetition, not of creation. Could it be that there is still, miraculously, some residual intelligence inside that damaged mind of hers, something in addition to a savant brain’s typical “island of brilliance?”

Apparently unaware of the phenomenon we call googling, Martha summons Evie’s English teacher Stewart (Bill Lithgow) to see if he recognizes any of her older daughter’s poems. Stewart is so impressed and moved by Emily’s perfect meter and rhyme that he suggests that mother and daughter appear on a local cable TV talk show.

Meanwhile, down in the basement, Dad (Norm Skaggs) seems unaware of anything going on above ground level, preferring to spend his time constructing miniature villages and electric trains to circle them.

While awaiting word from the long list of Top Ten universities she’s applied to, Evie learns that boy next door Russell (Kevin Railsback) has gotten an early admit from Yale, news she finds hard to believe given that she’s been tutoring him in math these past months. Apparently, Russell’s motivation for after school private lessons has come more from a desire to spend time with Evie than any need for remedial help, a suspicion borne out when he invites Evie to the prom. Evie’s unequivocal “No” to the sweetest, brightest, cutest boy school would seem to suggest that younger-smarter daughter may have a screw loose upstairs.

Emily’s TV appearance reveals the reason for at least some of Evie’s bizarre behavior. It doesn’t, however, explain the near constant smile on Evie’s face, an irritating grin which suggests that she is hearing jokes inside that pretty head of hers that no one else can. It doesn’t explain her near total lack of any social filter. And as for her disinterest in Russell, go figure.

Island Of Brilliance is a play that ought to work better than it does in its world premiere at Pacific Resident Theatre. Despite my best intentions, it was hard for this reviewer to take the journey that playwright O’Leary, director Wynn Marlow, and the cast intend for their audience to embark upon, hard to identify with or feel sympathy for a lead character as exasperating as Evie, and hard to go along with some of Marlow’s casting choices.

Renner appears to be a young actress of considerable gifts, but a little of Evie goes a very long way, whether due to the character O’Leary has created, Marlow’s direction, or Renner’s personal choices for the role (e.g. that grin). Charles has some very good moments as Martha, however she strains credibility as the mother of a teenager. The same can be said for Lithgow’s well-past-retirement-age high school teacher. Skaggs and the one-named Maryjane as three different interviewers do well in their smaller parts, and Bogle impresses in a very difficult role.

Island Of Brilliance is at its best when Railsback, playing the only normal character of the bunch, is around, which fortunately is quite often. An effortlessly natural performer, the recent UCLA grad lights up the stage whenever he’s on, a terrific young actor playing the sole voice of reason and sanity in a decidedly weird bunch.

William Wilday deserves highest marks for his set, sound, and lighting design, managing to compact several rooms of a New Jersey house (and quite a few other locales) onto a matchbox-size stage. Nicholas Hirata’s costume designs are fine choices for each character as well. Mark Macauley is stage manager. Orson Bean and Alley Mills are producers.

Island Of Brilliance is far from an all-out miss. It has a number of powerful moments, its characters are mostly well-drawn and motivated, and there are some fine actors onstage. If only the parts had added up to a stronger, more satisfying whole.

Pacific Resident Theatre, 703 Venice Blvd, Venice.
–Steven Stanley
December 19, 2010
Photos: Vitor Martins

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