By Mary Damiano
Who owns a violent experience? Does it belong to the perpetrator, the victims, the survivors or the bystanders? And whose story is the one that matters most to a society that turns tragic events into a television movie event and makes those who lived it the celebrity du jour?
Those are some of the questions explored in Gloria by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, (his play play An Octoroon was produced at Area Stage last year) a fascinating, timely play now at GableStage, although you’d never know it from the first 45 minutes. For nearly the entire first act, Gloria is an innocuous story about the petty jealousies and career ambitions of a group of assistants at a New York magazine. The titular character, Gloria, (Katherine McDonald) is only seen a few times, but her name and situation come up in conversation among the assistants as almost a warning of the career to avoid: Gloria, an editor, has been at the magazine for 15 years, a dedicated employee all but married to her job, whose only circle of “friends” are her coworkers.
When the play begins, Dean (Clay Cartland) stumbles into work, late and hungover, telling everyone about the expensive housewarming party Gloria hosted the night before, which turned pathetic and sad when only he and three other coworkers attended. The other assistants gobble up the gossip as they go on with their morning, which includes little work, some backstabbing, more gossip, and talk of five-year career plans so they they’re not in the same job when they hit 30. It’s a typical day at work. Then, out of the blue, violent tragedy strikes.
The second act picks up eight months later at a Starbuck’s and focuses on the aftermath and how some of the characters are coping with their experience. Several have gotten book deals because of their experience and have different reasons for writing their books—catharsis, career move and cashing in. The last scene takes place a few years later and focuses on Loren (Cliff Burgess) a former fact-checker at the magazine, now over 40 and working as a temp for a film production company in Los Angeles.
Gloria is a finely crafted play, both clever and shocking, funny and poignant, the kind of play GableStage is known for. Director Joseph Adler has assembled a terrific cast—Burgess, Cartland, and McDonald are veterans, while Philip Andrew Santiago, Lai-Si Lassalle, and Sheri Wiesman are making their GableStage debut—and together they form a tight ensemble. The pace is perfect, conveying the energy and boredom of office life, and the big moment is effectively jarring.
Cartland does fine work in Gloria, expertly ricocheting from an affable, dedicated guy in the first act to a mere shell of a man in most of the second act, and then taking on the bored, patronizing demeanor of another character as well. McDonald pulls double duty well, deftly portraying the blah, seemingly mousey Gloria in the first act and then Nan, an aloof former editor in the second act. Santiago is most effective as Miles the young office intern in the first act, but also plays a barrista and executive in act two. Lassalle brings Kendra to life in all her annoying, ambitious, shallow glory, and also makes icy film exec Jenna all her own later on. Wiesman, like Santiago, plays three characters, and makes each dictinctive.
Burgess is the one actor who gets to play the same character, Loren, throughout the play, and he is astonishing, Harried and frustrated in the first act, Loren is changed by the violence in a different way. The last scene belongs to Burgess, and his lovely, understated performance.
Lyle Baskin’s two office sets, nondescript gray for New York and vibrant colors for Los Angeles, are on point, while his Starbuck’s set has everything except a line of customers waiting to order. Both Matt Corey’s sound and Steve Welsh’s lighting are evocative, while Ellis Tillman’s costumes go a long way in illustrating each character’s personality. The one flaw lies in the wigs and facial hair some actors wear to play their other characters, which look more like a bad disguises. Kudos to Waldo Washaw for the jarring special effects.
Originally produced three years ago, Gloria is a timely play ripped from too many headlines that illuminates the perspectives and struggles of those directly effected by violent tragedy. It raises more questions than it answers, and while no one can answer those questions effectively in such a short time, Gloria is bound to raise some thought-provoking discussions.
Gloria runs through May 6 at GableStage at the Biltmore Hotel in Coral Gables. For tickets and more information, visit GableStage.org.
Photo Credit: George Schiavone