Findings

brain-scan-cropped-300x200This is not a review of the world premiere of Arlene Weiner’s play Findings produced by the Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company. This is a “re-view”.

What’s the difference?

In Findings, running now at Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company, we repeatedly witness life coach Jennifer Cortland “re-viewing” certain facts and circumstances of her life. Sharing a particularly vulnerable moment with her husband Roger, she painfully admits her greatest fear, that, because she’s made mistakes as a mother, their daughter Lainie hates her. After immediate “re-view”, Jennifer assures herself that this malice is just Lainie’s search for independence.

I admit that I envy Jennifer for her ability to harness the power of positive thinking. My review of Findings is that it is a deeply problematic drama that bites off way more than it can chew. Over its ill-paced 85-minute runtime, issues of race, mental illness, and sexual abuse are pureed together in a blender without the lid on. Unfortunately, the resulting mess could not be cleaned up by the solid efforts of the fully committed cast or by the good intentions of the playwright.

My “re-view” of Findings is that, while guilty of all the offenses I listed above and more, it is commendable for (literally) spotlighting the little-known and insidious effects of frontotemporal dementia. Also known as Pick’s disease, frontotemporal dementia is characterized by a shrinking of the frontal and temporal anterior lobes of the brain. These changes can manifest themselves in a variety of ways including a lack of motivation and impulse control, deterioration of language, and formation of irrational fears.

L-R - Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna
L-R – Julia De Avilez Rocha, Sam Lothard, Lissa Brennan, Amy Marsalis & John Michna

The last thing that comes to mind when spitfire Gloria Bazon first blazes onstage in a flirtatious flurry is how some of those tragic symptoms will disrupt and destroy her life. That’s a credit to the vibrant performance of Lissa Brennan. Her cheeky candor creates every one of the evening’s very few fleeting (and fizzling) moments of levity. Brennan does rely too heavily on the clichéd choice of portraying Gloria’s fractured mental state by wildly staring off into space, but occasionally—usually in scenes with Amy Marsalis’ Jennifer—her profound sense of confusion is truly gripping.

Long before the disease takes hold of Gloria and her family, we catch her mid-meet cute with Ray Jerome, an African-American man looking to sell a lone puppy to a loving owner. Before we know it, the two are sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner as an engaged couple with Jennifer and her family. Jennifer and Gloria may be sisters, but their similarities end there. Rebellious teen Lainie has a very positive relationship with her artistic, cool, fun-loving “Auntie Glo”.

Things truly begin to crumble when Gloria’s dangerous shopping habit forces Ray to take a job overseas to rescue them from financial ruin. The shocking revelations Gloria makes when he returns home snowball into her devastating diagnosis, her transferal into Jennifer’s care, and into the dark secrets of their childhood finally coming to light.

It’s a wild ride, to say the least. It’s a tedious and emotionally manipulative one, to say the worst.

As Roger and Lainie respectively, John Michnya and Julia de Avilez Rocha are by far the most natural and consistent members of the six-person ensemble. The play never really makes a strong case for why Lainie is so staunchly anti-everything. It is similarly unclear why Roger, a seemingly successful and respected oncologist, has little more invested in the plight of his sister-in-law than annoyance over the cell phone she swipes from him in one scene. Still, they both are clearly doing their best to bring some dimension to their cardboard cutout characters.

Besides the one aspect of its subject matter, another refreshing element of Findings is the passion of first time playwright Arlene Weiner. It seems that it was her lifelong love and exposure to theatre that inspired her to write, workshop, and submit the play for production. When I learned that she is a published poet, I grew nervous that her dialogue would be bogged down by flowery verbiage. While there were a few lines sprinkled throughout that tickled my ear, I never felt compelled to answer a soliloquy with finger snaps.

Honestly, though, I would have preferred snapping in praise to face palming in frustration. There are some disturbing implications about the quality of life victims of Pick’s disease (and ostensibly people with all kinds of disabilities) can have. The selfish character of Jennifer embodies those implications by referring to and eventually acting on them. She’s insensitive and irresponsible and, ultimately, so is the play she’s featured in.

Director Lisa Ann Goldsmith’s uninspired and immutable staging do nothing to smooth out the incredibly rough edges of the play’s content. She and Weiner sidestep nuance and mistake cheap shock value for compelling storytelling.

I wish that I found Findings in the positive spirit in which Weiner wrote it. Sadly, her good intentions paved a road, and it was not to an evening of enjoyable theatre.

Special thanks to Pittsburgh Playwrights Theatre Company for the complimentary tickets. Findings runs through March 19th, for more information click here.

Photo by Heather Mull.