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Desert Hearts

A Self-Sufficient Family Copes With a Father's Depression

NOW, SQUEEZE: Richard Cutting parents Rachel Condliffe.

By Robbie Whelan | Posted 2/6/2008

Off the Map

By Joan Ackermann

At Fells Point Corner Theatre through Feb. 17

"New Mexico is a very powerful place," says the adult version of Bo, the precocious 11-year-old central character of Joan Ackermann's Off the Map, played by Alex Hewitt in Fells Point Corner Theatre's production. "It's often very overwhelming." It's true: The languorous, desert-dry New Mexican landscape almost overwhelms the play itself, as the cast adopts a pace and style to match its setting.

Adult Bo opens the first act with a long, novelistic monologue that introduces her family--her 11-year-old self plus her depressed, Vietnam vet father, Charley (Richard Cutting), and hippie Native American mother, Arlene (Laura Gifford), who says Hopi prayers over the bodies of dead animals and weeds her garden in the nude. The three of them live an eccentric, self-sufficient existence--"off the map"--spending less than $5,000 a year, growing their own vegetables, shooting bears for meat, and salvaging household sundries from the local dump. Their friend and neighbor George (Michael O'Connell), a quiet, wry bachelor who takes Bo fishing and stays over for dinner, is a constant presence.

The problem is Charley's depression, which is alienating him from his daughter and mother, and is exacerbated by the fact that he won't see a doctor or take medication. His wife tries to coax him to bed, and his daughter writes precious letters to a nationally syndicated advice columnist asking for help, but Charley just slinks around, constantly weeping, occasionally spending the night in the outhouse.

Charley's foil is William Gibbs, a prep cook turned IRS agent who arrives at their ranch to audit the couple, who haven't paid taxes in half a decade. Gibbs is nervous, jittery, and awkward--played with an arresting, brilliant immediacy by Michael Zemarel--and in love with Arlene, whom he spies immediately upon his arrival doing some weeding. When Charley asks the agent if he has ever gone through what Charley is experiencing, Gibbs stutteringly replies, "I've never not been depressed."

Over the course of the play's two hours, Charley grapples with his illness while his family copes with it off to the side; Charley finds that he can only achieve catharsis with Gibbs, who--after being stung by the family's honeybees--is laid up with a fever and ultimately won over by their charms and his newfound love of watercolor painting. He decides to stay on for a few months.

The story--younger man arrives unexpectedly, falls for the attractive wife of a debilitated alpha male, and blossoms artistically--is familiar. But FPCT's treatment of it falters because the whole cast adapts to, and at some points even imitates, Charley's state of mind. Where Arlene and Bo should be bubbly counterpoints to Charley's silent, brooding, wounded facade, they often appear solemn, compassionate, and occasionally dryly ironic about the whole thing, as though the play is just one long episode of Northern Exposure, with everyone just baring their teeth through the cold weather with the help of an occasional joke.

In one scene, Arlene describes standing naked in the garden, watching from afar a coyote with a pristine coat of fur, finding herself aroused by the "wildest thing I'd ever seen" and fingering herself.

"I think I would have come, just standing there, if William Gibbs hadn't come by," she says to George during an after-dinner walk. But the dreamy, unsexy way she delivers the line totally undermines what it's supposed to say about Arlene's character. She is impulsive, earthy, and openly loving, but Gifford's portrayal has her come across stern and motherly. Also slowing down the play's dramatic impetus are Hewitt's periodic, languid narrations, ripe with introspective, literary prose full of country wisdom and artistic babble about Gibbs' paintings.

Thirteen-year-old Rachel Condliffe's Bo, however, pretty much steals the show. Who knew such impressive child actors were being grown in Lutherville? She's all knees and elbows and preteen drama queen delivery, perfectly capturing the quirkiness of playwright Ackermann's homeschooled nature-girl character. At the same time, a long scene in the second act, in which Bo throws a tantrum and cries on her mother's bosom about George getting married and moving to Albuquerque, highlights Condliffe's range and is oddly engrossing. Despite the dreamy pace and the palpable heat of the New Mexico desert, FPCT has staged a worthy treatment of a difficult play, with a complete emotional range and respectable acting.

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