There are times when a reviewer must decide that the less said, the better, and in this reviewer’s humble opinion, his colleagues have been giving away far too much about The Fall To Earth (recently opened at the Odyssey). Therefore, if this is the first time you’re reading about Joel Drake Johnson’s richly complex dramedy, read no further than this review.  Trust me.  This is one play you will want to be surprised by.

 Playwright Johnson certainly doesn’t tip his hand in the play’s opening fifteen minutes. In fact, theatergoers might well confuse Fay (JoBeth Williams) and Rachel (Deborah Puette) for the protagonists of a mother-daughter twist on Neil Simon’s The Odd Couple, that’s how many laughs there are over the first quarter hour or so.

50something Fay lets us know even before she enters Tom Buderwitz’s Marriott-ready hotel room set that she’s going to be quite a character as she attempts to deal with the keycard that’s been forced on her by modern technology rather than a good old-fashioned metal key.

Other 21st Century inventions provoke only wonder in the J.C. Penney-clad matron, like the “unlimited mileage” she and Rachel are getting on their rental car or the astonishing thinness of Rachel’s cell phone. Clearly not a regular hotel-dweller, Fay can’t help enthusing about the very idea of room service. The hotel stationery looks so lovely, Fay gushes, that she might just take some home with her. And as for the door which opens on a locked door leading to an adjoining room, well isn’t that just amazing!

 There are, however, hints that all may not be as hunky-dory between mother and daughter as immediately meets the eye. Divorced single mom Rachel seems overly dismayed at having to share even a king-sized bed with Fay due to a room reservation foul-up, and though Rachel has the latest in cell phones, to hear Fay talk, her daughter scarcely ever dials Mom’s number. When Fay asks to see pictures of her grandson, Rachel replies she doesn’t have any with her, and what mother doesn’t travel without snaps of her offspring?

Little by little we begin to deduce that there’s a considerably more serious reason for this trip than a weekend of mother-daughter bonding, and that there’s something a bit “off” about Fay, a suspicion borne out by a twice-told anecdote involving a bat (the flying kind), a highly inappropriate pinch, and advice Fay gives a third character about dealing with a domineering husband.

That third character is Terry (Ann Noble), and all I will say about her is that Fay’s and Rachel’s reason for traveling to this small American city will require meeting her, and that Terry’s interaction with Fay and Rachel will not end with that first meeting.

For further details, you’ll just have to look elsewhere, though I highly recommend not doing so and simply reserving seats for a production you will not want to miss, and not merely for the chance to see three Scenie-winning actresses* in a play whose unexpected twists will keep you guessing even as its leading ladies move you from laughter to gasps to tears and back again.

Be prepared to talk about The Fall To Earth as you exit the theater, as you stick around in the lobby for more talk, and as you continue the conversation on the way home. Unlike a novelist who fills in all the blanks for you, playwright Johnson lets his actresses connect the dots in their performances as each of them sees fit, and makes you, the theatergoer, do so in your own individual way.

 The Fall To Earth’s West Coast Premiere reunites several of the talented folks who led Johnson’s Four Places to multiple award victories in 2010, including its director Robin Larsen, who elicits from her stellar trio of leads three of the best performances you’ll see all year. (I still kick myself for having missed Four Places, which Puette produced.)

Williams, best remembered for her film roles in Kramer Vs. Kramer, Poldergeist, and The Big Chill, has become one of our finest stage, screen, and television actresses in the three decades since, and to say that she vanishes into another woman’s skin in The Fall To Earth is an understatement. Sporting a bouffant gray wig, matronly garb, and a Midwest accent you could cut with a knife, Williams’ identity might well remain a mystery throughout all ninety of The Fall To Earth’s gripping minutes if her name weren’t on the marquee. Suffice it to say that Williams’ Fay is an onion whose many skins reveal someone considerably more multifarious than you’d ever initially suspect.

Though Puette’s role is a good deal less showy than Williams’ (Fay gets the lioness’s share of lines when it’s just the two of them), the L.A. Weekly Award-winner is once again memorable indeed, hardly a surprise, though, since whatever Puette does on stage is as much about what’s happening within as without. It’s no wonder that when I’m in doubt about the caliber of a leading lady’s work, I ask myself how Deborah Puette would play the role. Her work here may well be her most subtle yet, but no less powerful, with Williams and Puette revealing a lifetime’s worth of scars and scabs between them.

Finally, there’s the divine Noble, who can play anything from plucky WWII heroine to devoted Jacobean wife to wacky Alan Ayckbourn Londoner to tightly-wound lesbian to plain-talking South Dakota farmwife to dour Chicago bartender, and these are just six of Noble’s most memorable characters on our stages. Here, she is the gritty glue that ties The Fall To Earth together and allows us to understand Fay and Rachel better, even as she reveals a Terry who is far more complex than our first meeting with her might suggest.

Jeremy Pivnick lights Buderwitz’s marvelous set to subtle perfection. Jocelyn Hublau Parker’s costumes speak volumes about the characters who wear them. The ominous hum that underscores our entrance into the theater presages another terrific, mood-enhancing John Zalewski sound design. Kudos go too to Katherine S. Hunt’s impeccable prop design and to Edgar Landa’s fight choreography, though the simple revelation that there is fight choreography in The Fall To Earth gives away more information than I’d like.

The Fall To Earth is produced by Ron Sossi and Roxanne Hart. Josie Griffin-Roosth is stage manager. Brian Sonia-Wallace is assistant director. Ian Littleworth, a Scenie winner himself**, appears briefly and significantly.

Ultimately, deciding to see a play about which I have kept so much unwritten may well require a leap of faith, but it is one I hope StageSceneLA readers will want to take. The Fall To Earth is well worth that leap.

Odyssey Theatre Ensemble, 2055 South Sepulveda Boulevard, Los Angeles.

–Steven Stanley
February 29, 2012
Photos: David Colclasure

  • * JoBeth Williams: The Quality Of Life (Best Performance By A Lead Actress In A Drama) and The Night Is A Child (Outstanding Performance By A Lead Actress/Drama)
  • Deborah Puette: Tryst (Lead Actress Of The Year/Drama), Stop Kiss Outstanding Achievement By A Lead Actress/Drama), and Caught, Eccentricities Of A Nightingale (Actress Of The Year)
  • Ann Noble: Orange Flower Water (Best Lead Actress In A Play), And Neither Have I Wings To Fly (Outstanding Achievement By A Lead Actress In A Drama), and Sidhe (Best Acting In An Ensemble Cast/Drama)
  • **Ian Littleworth: The Hasty Heart (Outstanding Acting In An Ensemble Cast/Comedy-Drama and (Outstanding Performance By A Featured Actor/Comedy-Drama)

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