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Nettie Dynamite

An Aging Woman Looks for Answers With Explosives and a Gun

Whoa, Nettie: Jason Hentrich (right) tries to talk down Babs Dentz, clearly a woman on the edge.

By John Barry | Posted 8/4/2004

Woman on the Edge

By Rosemary Frisino Toohey

At the Chesapeake Arts Center through Aug. 15. 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park, (410) 636-6597, www.baltplayfest.org.

If you’re going to strap explosives to your chest and threaten police officers with a rifle, you’re expected to have a reason. When Nettie Lowery (Babs Dentz) takes that step in Rosemary Frisino Toohey’s Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry, Woman on the Edge, she’s a little unsure. It had been a bad day. But the final straw may have been her recently rediscovered invitation to her first communion—on which a well-meaning nun had written that it would be the “happiest day of her life.” Forty-five years later, Nettie is beginning to wonder if she’s already lived the happiest day of her life, and she just didn’t realize it at the time. Even at its funniest, these vague misapprehensions are at the heart of Toohey’s unsettling comedy.

As the play begins, now that she’s barricaded herself inside her house, Nettie is facing a number of neighbors and concerned family members who want to know what’s eating her. Nettie’s cousin Richard (Mike Keating) and his wife, Joan Gerber (Helenmary Ball), are basking in the TV-camera lights, using the opportunity to spread the word about Richard’s orthodontist practice. Ruth (Laura Williams) is Nettie’s control-freak older sister who is taking a no-nonsense approach to her breakdown. Meanwhile, reporter Gerry Shane (Cybele Pomeroy) is going on the air with the latest-breaking developments.

As the standoff progresses, a police psychologist calls Nettie and begins quizzing her about her motives. This is where Toohey tries to add a dimension to what would be a simple dysfunctional family reunion. The more Nettie reflects on her position—despite the psychologist’s inane questions—the more she realizes that the one thing that’s bothering her is the one thing she can’t do much about: She’s 64. A few minutes of straightforward, unsentimental self-analysis by this likable character gives the play its much-needed emotional core. The only thing that’s difficult to accept about Nettie is that she’s really on the edge: As the play progresses, it becomes evident that she’s the only sane one there.

Nettie doesn’t engage in any sort of serious discussion with anyone else in the play besides herself, which creates a two-tiered effect. The most important relationship in Nettie’s life—with her husband—doesn’t make its entrance until the play’s final few minutes. That diminishes the opportunities for any connections between characters beyond the usual crazy-relative stuff. Even at the end, when Nettie decides to make more of an effort to reach out to her blood relatives, she doesn’t quite seem convinced by her decision. One admires Toohey for avoiding the tearful reconciliation.

Bob Bardoff directs with a capable hand, keeping the action going even as most of the play takes place in Nettie’s backyard. As Nettie, Babs Dentz is a strong presence, maybe a mite too strong, since it’s difficult to picture her as the acquiescent yes-woman that she is apparently supposed to be. The set, with several hidden doors and inside/outside staging, encourages viewers to look at the backyard less as a confined yard than as the hub of the play’s activity.

In the end, the play is a reunion but not quite a reconciliation. The comic and melancholic tones don’t mesh that easily: The mixture gets a little confusing, particularly when the gauntlet of relatives turns out to be the most important group of people in Nettie’s life. But there’s something undeniably realistic about the situation as well—that reunions are pains in the butt, but also woefully inadequate attempts to stop the clock on life. It’s not clear exactly what Nettie is going to do about that, but it is clear that barricading herself in and strapping an explosive device to herself isn’t going to do the trick. Neither is waiting until it’s too late. Lack of closure may be a little frustrating, because it seems that the real action is just about to begin at the end of the play. But Toohey avoids the temptation to come up with an epiphanic or climactic ending. Her smoothly written script is about opening doors, not closing them.

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