Virago Theater Company’s production of Catherine Trieschmann’s “Crooked” at The Flight Deck in Oakland was outstanding. The acting was spot on, vigorous, and relentless — made more so because one of the actors — Isadora Cass (as “Maribel”) is thirteen years old. Her transformation into Maribel was astounding. Her counterpart, “Laney” was played by Jamella Cross, a young actor who captures all the nuances of prodigy, self-conscious pain, and exibits the kind of willpower one would expect from a more mature actor. Angela Dant plays Laney’s mother, “Elise.” Dant’s portrayal of is vivid and natural: Elise is competent, hard working, rational, aware of social distinctions, and suffering from the emotional distress of having to deal with a marriage broken by her former’ husband’s deterioration. Her desire to be nurturing is offset by her fatigue.
“Crooked” is a play about madness. Not exactly raving madness, but the more quiet kind — the common madness that occurs in ordinary people who are mostly honest. But for the characters in “Crooked”, their grip on sanity — which is to say their confidence in the sanctity of the world around them — is shattered by a combination of forces: puberty, Satan, mental illness, and finally, Jesus and salvation.
That last force being particularly brutal. Because the problem with salvation is this: it requires honesty. Jesus loves you, and he dies for your sins, not just once but every time we harm each other. But dishonesty not only prevents salvation, it prevents even the very vision of the thing.
The title “Crooked” refers to Laney’s twisted spine, a medical condition caused by, as she puts it, “muscles working against each other.” She has a sharp wit, a bruised ego, and a vivid imagination. She has a gift for writing, which is her last defense against the world around her. Her mother, Elise, is a kind-hearted person exhausted by her ex-husband’s mental illness and her daughter’s pension for dramatic expression. In turn Laney resents her Mother’s abandonment of her father. Maribel, portrayed as a backwards simpleton with a childish religious fanaticism, falls headfirst into Laney’s world.
Once the two girls discover their mutual resentment at being outcasts, they enter into a mismatched friendship. Maribel’s simplicity is offset by Laney’s brilliance. Laney’s manipulative bullying is offset by Maribel’s desire to offer up salvation. Maribel is obsessed with stigmata, Laney is obsessed with lyrical expression. Maribel’s concept of the healing powers of Jesus — actually quite beautiful in it’s honesty — is offset by Laney’s muscular cynicism. And with all that emotional overhead they both struggle with the chaos of sexuality.
Watching these two girls reminded me of the doomed friendship of George and Lenny in Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” Maribel’s abject sadness when Laney’s conversion and acceptance of Christ doesn’t seem to work is a marvel — she takes Laney’s sin on her shoulders. And in a moment of remarkable insight, played almost as an aside to the audience, she sagely points out that Satan is a metaphor for the evil people do to each other, and from that arises all sin.
Through all this Elise struggles to maintain the will to think everything will turn out all right. That Laney’s power of observation and emotional cataloging can be controlled. She does what every mother tries to do: forgive her teenage daughter’s rebellion. She has a glass of wine, tries to be witty, wants to be her daughter’s friend. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.
“Crooked” was expertly staged, marvelously directed by Robert Lundy-Paine, the acting was brilliant. The show is currently closed, but rumor has it may get another run soon.