Chapel Theatre’s “Anatomy” lessons

Kat Ramsburg's "Anatomy of a Hug" grapples with the challenge of connection in a fraught mother-daughter relationship.

Living with roommates can be tough. Sharing space, overlapping schedules, compromising privacy — it all can be tricky. And if you wind up stuck with someone that, for whatever reason, you’re not inclined to like, the situation can get ugly.

Even so, it’s a bit of a shock when Amelia, giving a cursory tour of her apartment to an older woman named Sonia, snaps at her that they shouldn’t “share any personal information.”

But then, you surely could add “mother and daughter” to the list of emotionally loaded living situations.

Chapel Theatre Collective’s “Anatomy of a Hug” deals with the difficulty of getting close when you’ve become a wooden character in your own life story.

And what else might make things especially tense? Let’s see…how about if mom’s been in prison for killing dad? And the daughter is convinced that she was also a target of the crime? And mom’s out now through a compassionate-release program because she has terminal cancer?

That’s the potent set-up for Anatomy of a Hug, a well-crafted drama by Los Angeles playwright Kat Ramsburg, on stage now as the debut production from the Chapel Theatre Collective. It’s a smart, emotionally perceptive piece of writing, with the acidity of its premise balanced by just enough romantic sweetness.

Well, incipient romance, anyway. The crux of Ramsburg’s story is the rough road to reconciliation for Amelia and Sonia on the home front, but it’s nicely interwoven with Amelia’s work life, where a determinedly charming suitor tries to break through her shell. And projected onto both those storylines is Amelia’s obsession: television. Emotionally fractured by family trauma, Amelia turns to TV for a way to pass lonely hours, for facsimiles of friendship, for relief from anxiety. She collects complete-series DVD sets, subscribes to streaming services, even denigrates those who lack her binge-watching discipline. Her large flat-screen TV, which she won in a trivia contest, is both refuge and trap.

Amelia’s not exactly on an even keel. She’s bitterly resentful of and resistant to Sonia, she’s socially unskilled, and just brimming with bottled up need. Even so, Jessica Hillebrand’s portrayal, though strong in many respects, keeps the awkward meter pegged a bit too high too much of the time. Ramsburg’s script suggests that Amelia has lived in her TV bubble so thoroughly that its stories are ingrained in her identity. Hillebrand, instead, effects an almost-sweaty desperation about it, making her dissembling about it too transparent.

Jacklyn Maddux as Sonia and Murri Lazaroff-Babin as Amelia’s besotted co-worker Ben, however, make it impossible for this show to be less than satisfying.

Maddux has a lot on her plate here — Sonia’s defensiveness about what she has (and hasn’t) done, her yearning for connection with her daughter, her tentativeness in the outside world after 20 years behind bars, her occasional drift into prison-colored delusions as her illness grows more dire. Yet it all gets conveyed with such restraint and transparency that it never looks like effortful acting.

Lazaroff-Babin’s job isn’t heavy-lifting, it’s sweetness and light. He makes Ben’s cultivated self-confidence and recurring self-doubt both seem natural, and he carries the bulk of Ramsburg’s easygoing wit as if it were his own. Shareen Jacobs, as the caseworker overseeing Sonia’s release, also has some endearing moments as a balancing force amid these struggling souls.

Director Jason Glick isn’t quite able to surmount the awkwardness of the Chapel Theatre space, with its narrow, bowl-shaped stage, but gives the show a comfortable flow and employs effective sound design that makes broadcast static into thematically apt punctuation between scenes.

The play’s title refers to Ben’s attempts to teach Amelia one of the most basic tools of human contact, and by extension it points to much else here that’s about what it takes for us to make connections even when things are uncomfortable. If it were a TV show, Amelia no doubt would binge watch what’s here and look forward to the next season.

Anatomy of a Hug continues through Oct. 20 at the Chapel Theatre, 4107 SE Harrison St., Milwaukie.

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