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Asking Questions

Promising local family drama favors the daughter

Photo: Ken Stanek, License: N/A, Created: 2011:06:29 20:12:14

Ken Stanek

Kevin Griffin Moreno (left) and Shanna Babbidge

Asking Questions

By Nancy Murray

At the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Aug. 28

Meg may be the main character in Nancy Murray’s new play Asking Questions, now at the Fells Point Corner Theatre, but Mandi (Julia Pickens) is the one we root for. A theater audience is always silently “asking questions” as they watch a play, so naturally they will identify more with a 15-year-old girl who’s pressing for additional information than with a 31-year-old mother who’s keeping secrets. Like most children, Mandi wants to know more about those mysterious creatures known as parents, but she has more questions than most. She’s been told that her nameless father died in a car accident before she was born, but she’s beginning to suspect that he might be alive.

So the teenager with the curly dark hair, shoulder tattoo, orange tights, and knee boots becomes the audience’s surrogate, while her mother becomes the audience’s opponent, a security guard keeping nosy observers away from the playwright’s secrets. It’s easy for Mandi to win us over, for not only does Pickens give the production’s best performance but Murray gives her the show’s most natural-sounding lines. The playwright captures that cusp between childhood and adulthood, when giggly silliness can switch to sober rationality and back again as quickly as the weather can change in Baltimore. And the actress captures the way a teenage girl tries on new attitudes (arguing with her mother, flirting with boys) with the same doubtful, lip-chewing tentativeness with which she tries on new clothes.

This 75-minute show, an entry in the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival, has its flaws: an abrupt ending, overly schematic dialogue, uneven acting, and a distracting set. But all that is outweighed by a compelling narrative momentum and by Mandi’s appealing presence. As the play opens, Meg (Shanna Babbidge) is berating herself for going out on a date in a curly black wig given to her by her gay best friend Doug (Andrew Syropoulos). Mandi and her best friend from high school, Jen (Erin Boots), overhear just enough of Meg’s post-date argument with Doug to ask the same questions as the audience: Who was the man Meg met at the restaurant, and why did she disguise herself in a wig when she went?

When Mandi asks her mother even the blandest question about the incident, however, Meg freaks out. So Mandi and Jen do what everyone in the audience wants them to do: They wait for Meg to go to work and then rifle through her boxes of photos and documents. They dig out Mandi’s original birth certificate, which identifies her father as “unknown,” not “deceased.” It’s not much to go on, but it’s enough for Mandi to send Jen home and confront her mother after work. When Meg angrily slams the door on all of her daughter’s questions, Mandi gets so mad that she obtains a fake ID and joins Jen at a local singles bar.

What follows is the most inventive scene in the show. While Mandi and Jen drink themselves silly and begin to flirt with older boys at the bar, the man from the restaurant (Kevin Griffin Moreno) shows up at Meg’s house and demands an explanation. As Meg describes to him her loss of virginity after visiting a singles bar with her own fake ID, Mandi and Jen act out the same scenario in the present. Before long, the past and the present are occupying the same space, with a drunken 15-year-old Meg sprawled next to a drunken 15-year-old Mandi. This image, written by Murray and realized by director Peter Davis, says much more than any of the dialogue.

Most new plays need cutting, but Asking Questions needs fleshing out. Meg needs scenes where she’s not on the verge of hysteria, so her outbursts are in contrast to something; Babbidge seems to be screeching throughout the show, and it’s not entirely her fault. The whole show needs more humor to set off the serious issues; at present Syropoulos’ obvious gift for comedy isn’t given much play. The mysterious man at the restaurant needs more backstory than the few tantalizing hints we’re given. And the final scene needs to play out longer so we get a better sense of which problems have been overcome and which problems remain (there are always some problems left to solve).

In the meantime, however, there is one more weekend to see Murray’s promising foray into family drama and Pickens’ impressive turn as a 15-year-old girl asking questions even when she can’t imagine the answers.

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