A woman steps to the sliding glass door of a darkened house. The door is locked, and she doesn’t have a key, but that’s no problem. Angling a credit card along the door jamb, she pops the lock. Inside she searches for a light and plugs in the refrigerator. She looks around. It’s a nice home. If only she owned it.
So begins “Bethany,” a play currently in production at ACT – A Contemporary Theatre. Written by Laura Marks, the play focuses on Crystal (played by Emily Chisholm), a homeless mother who, in an attempt to reunite her family, concocts a scheme that first involves squatting in a foreclosed home. It’s a ploy complicated by her interactions with Gary (Darragh Kennan), a homeless man who’s already living in the house. Can she trust him? She’s not sure, but with few options, they enter into a tense living arrangement.
Crystal’s life outside the house is just as precarious. She sells cars in a faltering Saturn dealership, and unless she completes a sale, she’ll never regain her financial footing. She sets her sights on a potential customer, a motivational speaker named Charlie (Richard Ziman) who counsels people on how to achieve economic success. If she can get him to walk away with the keys to a new car, maybe she can get her own set of keys: one to a home. But he’s a hard sell. Crystal decides that’s not a problem. After all, she’ll use every tool at her disposal to make him commit.
In a taut 90 minutes, “Bethany” dramatizes, sometimes with great humor, the desperate actions of a mother caught in the maelstrom of the financial downturn. Even as markers of the Great Recession abound, with homeless parents, foreclosed homes and dying businesses, Marks has written a play that forgoes economic analysis and finger-pointing. Instead, it presents characters whose lives are tugged down by forces that, while rarely named, affect everyone who crosses the stage.
Sometimes the forces aren’t economic but medical. Crystal’s new roommate, Gary, seems to be dealing with an undiagnosed mental health issue. Perhaps he’s a homeless vet from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan who now has PTSD. The cause of his troubled behavior is never revealed, but his interactions with other characters are infused with a sense of foreboding. Beneath the surface, something dangerous lurks within Gary, waiting for release.
While the action in “Bethany” is clear and direct, characters’ motivations are often murky and ambiguous. Sure, Crystal is homeless, but is she right to break into a house and claim it as her own? Yes, car salespeople have been known to lie, but does that mean Charlie, as a potential customer, can also withhold a few truths? And does the economic crisis cause people to make questionable decisions, or are people’s actions driven by their own well-established moral codes? The show provides no easy answers, which might explain why, during a preview performance, audience members appeared visibly shaken by the play’s violent climax. Suddenly, on stage, a world colored gray had taken on a slightly darker hue, and it was difficult to ferret out which character was the cause.
Perhaps it is the equivocal nature of “Bethany” that has brought Marks numerous accolades. She won the Leah Ryan Prize for Emerging Women Writers for the play, and she was also the runner-up for Yale’s emerging playwright award. In a personal statement in the program, Marks said that she wrote it after she was laid off in 2009: “So it was an easy time to go the dark place in your head and wonder what would happen next — not just for my little family but for the whole country.”
By setting the play in “the exurbs of a small city America,” the dark place in her head becomes transposed to an anonymous city where the residents suffer the devastating effects of the economic crisis. The events in “Bethany,” the play suggests, have the potential to take place anywhere.
“Bethany” runs at ACT through May 4.