Over this past weekend, the University community was given a remarkable treat in the form of two one-woman shows written and performed by Elizabeth Levy and Kay Perdue. Remarkably candid and elegantly written plays, Levy's Leaving Phoebe and Perdue's If Only You Had a Little Discipline, You'd Be Fine, both recently won the Olga and Paul Menn Foundation Prize for Playwriting (second and first place, respectively), and it shows. Both pieces, in markedly different ways, allow their audience entrance into the minds of their performers in touching and thought-provoking ways.
If Only You Had a Little Discipline, You'd Be Fine is as good a piece of theater as one could hope to see on a topic as potentially awkward as diabetes. If things don't go well, we might be left with another Hallmark movie of the week. Instead we get an interesting look at what it means to be diabetic. The play tries very self-consciously not to be about victimhood and partially succeeds. With its dancing refrigerator (once to the Eurythmics "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" and then later to "L'amour Est Un Oiseau Rebelle" from Carmen) and onstage insulin-injection, the play tries very hard to keep you on your toes and succeeds in producing engaging and informative theater.
Leaving Phoebe focuses on the anxieties and confusion of growing up and becoming an adult in the modern world and does so with humor and honesty. The monologue is frequently cut with the actress taking the role of Phoebe from The Catcher in the Rye, as she waits for her brother Holden to arrive, and these scenes accentuate the surrounding ones, making them all the more poignant. Towards the end of the monologue, Levy describes her experience of September 11 while still in rehearsals for a production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Steppenwolf, where she was playing "human scenery." The mechanical motions from that production, which she goes through as she recounts the confusion, concern, and guilt of that day, are heart-wrenching and spellbinding. Levy is a gifted performer who oozes charisma on stage. With a twitch of her mouth, a flick of her hair, or a well-timed line, she was able to bring her audience laughter or tears, and as is the case with all great performers, the choice was entirely hers.
Both actresses deserve reams of print hailing their respective talents in writing and performance. Perdue has a presence on stage that is both aggressive and inviting, and utterly unavoidable. Watching her emerge casually from within a refrigerator is a sight her audience will not soon forget. At the same time Levy's ability to switch between a stage persona presumably based on her own into the silent aching Phoebe is heartbreaking, and it brought not only resonance to her own piece but to Salinger's work as well.
Amid all this deserved praise, it can be noted that there were a few minor things that might have merited more attention from the director. Some aspects didn't quite seem to mesh into the shows, leaving the audience to wonder if the lights were obscuring the artists' faces and bodies on purpose, or why there was a red stripe down the middle of the stage, or why some of the dances seemed to go on for so long when the actresses looked so tired.
What's truly amazing is that these women had the courage, the conviction, and the talent to tell their stories and to do so while escaping almost all of the cliches inherent in young performers delving into their own lives for source material. For that alone, they deserve acclaim.