Marja-Lewis Ryan puts her own distinctive stamp on Women Behind Bars in the powerful Bugaboo & The Silent One, the playwright-director’s fourth and latest World Premiere collaboration with the astonishing Heidi Sulzman.

 Sulzman stars as trailer-trashy Peggy, née Margaret, nicknamed Bugaboo, who’s spent the past seven weeks in a holding-cell awaiting an empty women’s-penitentiary bed where she will begin serving a 25-to-life sentence as yet another victim of “three strikes and you’re out.”

All by her lonesome save an occasional visit by prison guard Peterson (Michelle Gardner), her childhood second-grade classmate, Peggy passes the time chattering to herself, begging the Lord’s forgiveness for taking His name yet again in vain, “workin’ on truth-tellin’,” and playing solitaire tic-tac-toe, convinced the game is rigged because “every time you play it ends in a tie.”

This morning’s bed check, however, has come with an announcement.

Peggy will be getting a new cellmate today, albeit only till a judge hands down the latter’s sentence, news that at the very least could mean a tic-tac-toe partner, and maybe even a friend, however brief their time together.

 Unfortunately, the cellmate she gets (Jacqueline Toboni as The Silent One) seems unlikely to become either, enveloped as she is in a mute sorrow whose reasons we can only guess at.

It’s not until more than halfway through Bugaboo & The Silent One’s 72-minute running time that playwright Ryan reveals the reason for The Silent One’s incarceration, and when said revelation comes, it transforms her play from comedic solo-show to deeply moving two-hander, and one that will stick with you long after its heartrending fade to black.

In circumstances other than those that have brought them together, Bugaboo and The Silent One would likely never have met, let alone established a human connection.

Still, like strangers forced to share a stalled elevator or school library detention stay, proximity can turn nothing-in-commons into unexpected friends, particularly if shared losses get discovered and shared needs fulfilled.

 That playwright Ryan accomplishes this in under an hour and a quarter while making subtle but potent statements about punishments that do not fit the crimes they’ve been assigned to adds up to some compelling, deeply moving theater.

Under Ryan’s razor-sharp direction, a stunning Toboni reveals as much with her eyes and body language in her initial scenes as she does when words finally emerge, and a terrific Gardner adds occasional hints of tenderness beneath Peterson’s don’t-mess-with-me exterior.

 Still, this is Sulzman’s show all the way, Ryan’s leading lady of choice proving herself as expert at redneck shtick in Bugaboo’s first half-hour (a virtual solo-performance that has Peggy extolling the virtues of fruit cups, chalking up lists of “things to work on,” and offering apology after apology to a presumably recently discovered Lord & Savior) as she is at the dramatic once barriers get dropped and things turn heartbreakingly, gut-punchingly somber.

Scenic designer Michael Fitzgerald’s meticulously detailed prison cell set is lit with fitting starkness by Karyn Lawrence as is Skye Stewart-Short’s realistic female prison wear, with sound designer Cricket S. Myers’s striking mix of prison effects (from screeching buzzers to screaming inmates) and subtly tension-building underscoring completing a top-notch production design.

 Bugaboo & The Silent One is presented by Chris Bender, produced by Leah Couvelier, Allie Romano, and Ryan, and associate produced by Racquel Lehman of Theatre Planners. Susan K. Coulter is stage manager.

A radical departure from One In The Chamber and A Good Family, Marja-Lewis Ryan’s previous pair of households-in-crisis living-room dramas, but no less powerful in its impact, Bugaboo & The Silent One is the award-winning writer-director at her hot-button best.

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Lounge Theatre, 6201 Santa Monica Boulevard. Hollywood. Through February 24. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8:00. Sundays at 2:00 and 7:00. Reservations: 800 838-3006

–Steven Stanley
January 7, 2017
Photos: Billy Baque

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