Ward Theatre Company, Durham
Through March 20, $25
In the Triangle, we’ve gotten used to seeking out bleeding-edge theater in the unlikeliest places. Cinderblock palaces, former mills or packing plants, rural farms and urban greenways, streets and alleysall have served as hardscrabble venues for Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, Bare Theatre, and Seed Art Share in recent years.
The location of the region’s current hottest show is equally unlikely: a nondescript suburban office park just off Farrington Road in southwest Durham. The aging beige buildings at 4905 Pine Cone Drive house a CPA, a family law firm, an insurance agency, and the Ward Acting Studio. Its affiliated theater company, Ward Theatre Company, is now staging a remarkable debut production, Jacuzzi, a psychological thriller by the New York playwright collective The Debate Society.
The studio is modest. Just off the foyer, a single row of twenty-seven chairs lines the edges and the far wall of a snug room. But your perspective shifts as an usher guides you to your seat across what looks like a Rocky Mountain vacation rental. A mounted moose head stares out above a back door with windowpanes ringed with frost. A little steam rises from a bubbling hot tub, just off-center along the opposite wall. The room’s intimacy heightens the Hitchcockian suspense.
When a partially frozen Bo (Ryan Fleming) stumbles into his family’s cabin the night before a reunion with his estranged father, Robert (Geoff Bowen), he’s surprised to find itand the Jacuzzioccupied by the mellow couple Helene (Emma Jo McKay) and Derek (Brandon Cooke). Bo thinks they’re vacation renters who’ll be leaving the following morning, and he accepts their invitation to stay the night and share the hot tub and their brandy.
But you have to watch those assumptions, particularly while you’re boorishly spilling some of your family’s most damning indiscretions along with the hooch. By the time Robert arrives, Helene and Derek’s identities have subtly changedbut their agendas remain decidedly obscure.
It takes a dry sense of humor for a group of strangers to choose a first show whose main point is that you really shouldn’t trust a group of strangers. Jacuzzi marks Wendy Ward’s directorial debut in the region, and the regional debuts of three of her company’s four members. For two of them, Jacuzzi is their first show ever. Not to worry: you won’t be able to pick them out.
But how do beginners get this good this quickly? Having a well-seasoned teacher helps. After graduating with a theater degree from Duke in 1981, Ward taught acting in New York for decades before moving to Australia in 2010. Concluding that she was “very American,” she relocated here in 2014.
Ward teaches the acting techniques of Sanford Meisner. Frequently called “the anti-Method,” they’re an alternative to Method acting, the most popular form of theatrical training in the U.S. Where Method emphasizes emotional memory, Meisner stresses interaction among actors in the present moment.
Ward recalls her first exposure to the Meisner technique in New York: “I was watching the work of my peers and asking, ‘How are they doing that?’ I had no clue; it was so real. It catapulted my work to another place.”
Ward has clearly seen her fair share of chillers. Under her nuanced direction, McKay and Cooke skillfully deepen our unease with Helene and Derek’s inscrutable charade. Posing as the property caretakers for this over-privileged, under-ethical clan, they want to take care of every little thing: the food, the phone, and the only snowmobile that can escape the mountain. As Robert blithely spills even more family dirt in his mistaken effort to ingratiate himself, the pair keeps calmly collecting information.
“[The Meisner training] is one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” says Cooke, a student of Ward’s, who pursued his dream of becoming an actor only after earning a business degree from N.C. State. “There’s such a comfort in performing now.”
Nowhere is Ward’s dark, suspenseful stagecraft more delicious than when Robert, in an otherwise unlit room, kneels before the flicker of a TV, watching the end of a bullfight. Helene and Derek stand motionless in the shadows just behind him. The chill sets in when we realize that the actors’ placement echoes the positions of the toreador and the bull.
I really can’t tell you what happens after that. But I can say that, in an age of identity theft and other privacy concerns, these talented strangers remind us that the information we voluntarily divulge often does the greatest mischief. Paraphrasing Oscar Wilde, ultimately, only the ones we trust can betray us.
This article appeared in print with the headline “J’accuse Jacuzzi.”