Tiny Engine Theatre Company
@ Common Ground Theatre
4815B Hillsborough Rd., Durham
Through April 4

As teachers and theater artists know, children have at least one thing in common with scripts: fundamentally, both are riddles whose contents and meanings are discovered only through time and extended scrutiny. Even less comforting, that outcome is not guaranteed. Sometimes, the enigma remains unsolved, a cryptogram whose principles and motives we hesitantly pencil inand cross out later on.

Perhaps director Paul Sapp and his cast have fully figured out the mystery at the unquiet heart of the 2012 off-Broadway drama, RECALL. If so, they haven’t fully staged it. Not that Eliza Clark’s too-elliptical script makes either proposition easy, clutching its meager cache of clues close to the chest through the final scenes. And there are set pieces and stage directions that would challenge companies with budgets far greater than Tiny Engine‘s.

In a dysfunctional near-future, scientists in some Big Brother government program think they’ve figured out a fairly extreme way to catch and rehabilitateor, rather, recyclebudding sociopaths like those who struck Newtown and Columbine, before they can act upon their dark obsessions. But judging from results thus far, manifested in at least one onstage character, the recall program is far from being thoroughly debugged.

High-school students Natalie Izlar and Gerald Jones were also seen as star-crossed companions in December’s production of I and You at Manbites Dog Theater. Here, they’re a mixed bag as Lucy and Quinn, two troubled teens that are prospective candidates for recall.

Theater comes down to belief. Unfortunately, under Sapp’s direction, Jones’ basic, nice-enough-guy character never convinced me there was a sociopath hiding inside him. On Saturday night, Quinn’s comment about merely lacking the resources to stage undying vengeance was treated as a throwaway line.

Sapp could be asserting in these choices that Quinn was racially profiled onto the recall list. But that would raise another riddle: what Lucy, a truly disturbed character, would ever find in common with this Quinn in the first place.

Though Sapp brings out the menace in Izlar’s reading of Lucy, we don’t experience the psychopathic deadness behind the eyes that several characters comment on. Amanda Scherle ably conveys the dead-end dreams and ruthless loyalty of Lucy’s mother, Justine, and Lazarus Simmons gives an uneasy reading as David, a government operative with divided loyalties.

But in unwisely settling for comic relief, Sapp and Kirsten Ehlert only convey an incomplete jigsaw sense of Charlotte, a scientist who’s invested a bit too much of herself in her current experiments. Paul Paliyenko’s lights don’t fully separate disparate scenes on John Paul Middlesworth’s atmospheric but too small set. And moments designated for comic timing and true dread were rushed, while the staging in the last scene remained too opaque for audiences to interpret.

Thus, mixed marks overall for a puzzle only partially solved. After two consecutive recent productions with problematic character work, Sapp needs to burnish the directorial promise he demonstrated during last summer’s Closer. Meanwhile, for now, Tiny Engine’s still sputtering.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Imperfect Recall