Myths across the ages tell about strangers arriving at doorsteps and how the gods will give you good fortune if you trust enough to let the strangers in. Yet more often than not, that’s not how the story unfolds – and certainly not in the case of Our New Girl, a psychological thriller at Corrib Theatre that plays upon the dynamics of human relationships at their most vulnerable.
Nikki Weaver, fresh on the heels of her performance as Ibsen’s Nora in Shaking the Tree’s A Doll’s House, is Hazel, a former high-powered attorney whose confidence is now compromised in what seems an endless web of homegrown complexity. Much like Nora, Hazel has demands placed on her as a work-at-home mother of a social-climbing, workaholic husband.
Weaver plays the role with a stubbornness that speaks to Hazel’s recent past, when she had power from her career outside the home. The world she inhabits now is a posh London apartment with all the latest amenities: a clean, crisp, picture-post-card salute to Crate and Barrel showpieces. The entire play is acted out in the apartment’s kitchen, whose primary tint of white is offset by many light-gold bottles of olive oil. Many homes find their heart in the kitchen, where creating and dishing meals ignite end-of-the-day conversations when families can bond. This kitchen is sterile: the closest things to nourishment it offers are fresh cucumber sandwiches. Hazel and her family are being drawn and quartered. Why, who, and how are the anxieties at play.
Irish playwright Nancy Harris is part of the vanguard of female dramatists testing the waters of a male-dominated field. She’s won the Rooney Prize for Irish Literature and the Stuart Parker Award, and her work has been premiered at the historic Abbey Theatre in Dublin. Our New Girl takes the convention of a marriage disintegrating, but throws a few monkey wrenches into the machine. When things fall apart and people are trapped in the etiquette of social convention, misery is prolonged.
Annie, played by Paige McKinney, appears in the first scene dressed in almost designer jeans and a faded pink hoody. Her long, slightly unkept hair frames her face and hints that her character can’t afford a haircut. She totes an old suitcase and worn department store shopping bag that contain all of her belongings. Hazel wants Annie to return to the backwaters of County Sligo ASAP. The British class wars are staged from the beginning. Hazel, in sharp contrast to Annie, is glowing. Her neatly bobbed hair and comfortably expensive cotton clothing keep her looking good with little effort, and her soft aura also comes from her very full and obvious pregnancy. McKinney’s Annie is young, with too much self-doubt married to an abundance of compliments for Hazel’s family – the sticky type of conversation that tars a person’s intent.
Hazel’s husband, Richard, who is played by the formidable Todd Van Voris, travels often, volunteering his skills as a plastic surgeon to the less fortunate Third World. From the get-go we can assume that, since he’s put another cook in the kitchen, Annie is not the governess of English literature like Mary Poppins – she’s not an angel in Hazel’s corner. The first scene with the two women moves quickly, with Annie turning tables on Hazel and pushing herself into their home. Hazel’s pregnancy brings out our protective instinct. As for a splinter caught under a fingernail, we’ll wait a bit for Annie to volunteer to leave. But we want her out.
As McKinney’s Annie begins to shed her sheep’s clothing and reveal the desperation that drives her actions, Van Voris’s Richard moves from being a loud braggart to a filmy seducer. We question whether he’ll ever find redemption, because people, and mostly women, are playthings who prop up his dying ego. Van Voris’s crystal-clear and weighted performance bobs slightly, like a man who doesn’t know he’s holding his head above water while drowning. He cuts down Hazel, destroying her confidence to run their home and her business distributing olive oil. Hazel’s dream of recreating a Sicilian-hearth mother within herself and illuminating a way forward for their home is tossed aside like yesterday’s papers.
Atticus Salmon, as Daniel, Hazel and Richard’s nine-year-old son, has a sublime look, the kind that wild animals gives off when they’re intent on sizing up a situation. Is he on the hunt or just reading behind all the posturing of the adults who control his world? Here’s the power of the play: we want Daniel to be a sweet innocent boy who is loved by his parents; we want Hazel to get her act together and stand up for herself; we want Richard to stop being the puppet-master and care for his family; we want Annie to become an honest person. None of the characters is likable, but we discover that compassion and the fixes to all of their problems are laid in our laps. All of them live in the shadows of their own psyches. Harris draws from our own fears and summons us beyond the anesthesia of haunting discomfort to a place that wants meaning.
Director Gemma Whelan approaches Harris’s words as a cautious dance of human failings, which are also the stars on which we can hitch a second chance. It would be easy to use the love triangle of Hazel, Annie, and Richard to dismantle the ambivalent privilege they’ve constructed for their lives, but Whelan develops a more complex, uprooting dance among the characters. Our New Girl makes the case that it’s not so much that the characters are opaque, as that they have yet to reflect enough on their interior lives to know what drives them, and that the immaterial is their real ruin. The end of the play ties up neatly with a refined shock, just as it began.
Corrib Theatre’s Our New Girl continues through June 26 at Portland Actors Conservatory Theatre, 1436 S.W. Montgomery Street. Ticket and schedule information here.