Crazy for feeling
When it comes to acting, a common belief holds that portraying mentally handicapped or insane characters is a cheap grab at thespian virtuosity. Nicholson, Hopkins, Hoffman and Hanks have all nabbed Oscars for performances in this vein, and others like Penn and DiCaprio have done their darnedest to join them. Personally, I am wary of some “Acting” with a capital “A” when mental instability or disability is involved. Thus, when a play is actually titled Nuts, like the new production at TheatreWorks of Northern Nevada, well … to paraphrase a wise friend: Community theater, plus possibly insane lead character, plus role made famous by Barbra Streisand in film version, plus courtroom setting, equals no potential for overacting whatsoever, right?
Before acting even comes into the picture, however, TWNN’s production has to overcome several hurdles to get off the ground, the chief one being venue. Though the Southside School is beautiful, it’s a sweltering old building with acoustics that make a high school gym sound like a recording studio. Add to that the soothing Hot August sounds of souped-up muscle cars pouring through open windows on both sides, and Nuts had me questioning the sanity of director Evan Gadda for staging his production there. Knowing, however, that local theater is a make-do proposition, I tried to keep an open mind.
The plot of Nuts is simple: In a special court proceeding, a woman accused of homicide tries to prove she is fit to stand trial rather than be committed to a mental hospital. From the moment the accused takes the stage, she has your attention. As Claudia Draper, a “nice white girl” gone bad, Stephanie Richardson alternates between being a sallow, dead-eyed victim of institutionalization and a seething caged animal. According to the play’s program, Richardson has acted opposite the likes of no less than Philip Seymour Hoffman, and this kind of résumé has apparently given her the seasoning required for such a tremendously difficult role. While anyone can scream onstage, Richardson possesses a deep understanding of her character and a commitment that makes it a real pleasure to watch her work. Simply put, this is as good a performance as I have seen on a local stage.
All around, Gadda makes up for the difficulties in his production by having assembled a very good cast. The reliable Cathy Welch is effective as Draper’s oblivious mother, and Dale Fast deftly injects some much-needed dark comic relief into the second act as the accused’s stepfather. Additionally, Michael Maupin and Rob Sawyer offer well-developed characterizations of a crafty defense lawyer and an egotistical psychiatrist, respectively. That said, however, some difficulties should be noted. A drawback of casting one actor of Richardson’s caliber is that there are pivotal moments when other actors can seem overmatched. Occasionally, when the action in the courtroom reaches fever pitch, the production tends to turn the dial up to 11 to compensate, which doesn’t always do the job. Ultimately, I’d have preferred less histrionics and shouting, and more simmering tension, but fortunately, Richardson’s work still makes it all worthwhile.
Though I began the evening mildly annoyed, and the play starts out clunky, it only gets better as it gathers steam, and eventually the distractions become an afterthought. Nuts is undoubtedly rough around the edges, but when the dust settled, my lasting impression was not of the production’s flaws, but rather of a truly remarkable performance.