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Saber Toothed

A Wheelchair-Bound Wife Verbally Skewers Her Husband In Rosemary Toohey’s Tense “Cornered”

TAKING A STAB: Susan Porter sticks it to her stage husband in “Cornered.”

By John Barry | Posted 8/10/2005

Get Stuffed By Mark Scharf

Cornered By Rosemary Toohey

Watch out for people in wheelchairs. The documentary Murderball gives the impression that the more limbs you cut off a person the more dangerous they become on the court. “Cornered,” Rosemary Toohey’s new one-act at the Spotlighters, turns a middle-aged woman with multiple sclerosis into a psychological monster, who makes up for loss of motor functions by turning her caregiver husband into her own personal puppet.

The Spotlighters’ small theater-in-the round doesn’t always accommodate its productions perfectly, but “Cornered” is right at home. Susan Porter’s Laura turns her wheelchair into a weapon, rolling around the stage, thrusting and parrying at her husband, Stephen (Mark Squirek), an amiable middle-aged man in the Dick Van Patten mold. He wants nothing better than to help his crippled wife face down her disease. Laura, meanwhile, thinks that if he really wants to be a saint, he’s got to earn it.

At first, life proceeds on target: Shortly after the diagnosis, the couple is immersing itself in self-help therapy, watching My Left Foot, and trying to stave off muscle deterioration with appropriate exercises.

But the uplifting Lance Armstrong phase doesn’t last for long. Toohey reminds us that in the matrimonial power struggle illness is one more weapon, and somewhat awkwardly she pounds the point in with a fencing motif. Husband-wife encounters are punctuated by brief lectures on fencing strategy. If you want to rule the roost from your wheelchair, choose the line of attack carefully. Laura applies the rules of fencing to caregiving—she waits for the vulnerabilities and touches the right buttons. As the illness progresses, the feints become more calculated.

Brief, sharp moments of strategically composed dialogue lift “Cornered” above the usual Baltimore Playwrights Festival fare. Toohey isn’t really interested in creating a connection between Laura and the audience—and that’s just fine. While there are some moments of human candor, she remains an enigma to the end. Why is it that anyone in her position would bite the only person in the world who wants to help her? It’s an eternal question, and Toohey doesn’t answer it. The hint at the end that Laura has put her husband through the 12-year gauntlet just to persuade him to find another woman and begin again rings hollow. She’s a control freak, and it’s clear that if she wasn’t doing this from her wheelchair, she would find another way.

Though these exchanges between her and her husband exude a good deal of power, the play still has its rough edges. The 12-year span doesn’t really work in a 45-minute production. And fencing, while a metaphor for everything in life, isn’t essential to this particular drama. What keeps this motif alive is the present tense: Toohey isn’t relying on offstage characters, previous engagements, or onstage therapy sessions. The husband-wife conflict is right there on the small square stage, stripped to its essentials.

I tend to ignore playwright’s notes, but with Mark Scharf’s “Get Stuffed”—the other one-act in this BPF production—they’re worth reading. He says that this play arrived “full-blown,” and he allowed it to unfold “without question.” That’s vaguely reminiscent of a character in Blue Mermaid, his full-length BPF offering, who says offhandedly that he doesn’t do anything to wood; the sculptures are already in the wood to begin with.

So that may mean the play here is in the idea: that if a grown man still talks to his teddy bear, it can become the third party in all his relationships. It’s a passive approach to composition—one that assumes things will shape out in the end and that connections will be made because they are there to begin with. What evolves here is a sort of dramatic brainstorm with a quirky premise.

Scharf’s Teddy bear is the play’s raison d’être: Marty, a young man, is incapable of separating himself from his childhood companion. By the play’s end, this encounter morphs into a zoological Zoo Story, with Furball the stuffed bear (Mark Squirek) and Marty (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh) engaging in a tearful, torturous give-and-take that Scharf wants to take to a higher level. By then, though, the premise has run out of gas.

The best moments in “Get Stuffed” are during a tentative first-night encounter between Marty and Kristin (Taisha Cameron). Ebrahimzadeh and Cameron give this scene a strange, low-key comic appeal. Almost everything you’d expect to happen happens here, but Marty’s languorous, distracted reception of Kristin’s overtures is really worth its own little play. Meanwhile, Squirek as Furball and Susan Porter as Marty’s Jewish mom do their jobs, but they’re just saving their energy for their excellent performances in “Cornered.”

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