Walking into the T. Schreiber Theatre for Natural Life, a new play by Eduardo Ivan Lopez, I’m immediately struck by the simple yet powerful set. Even before the show begins, the austere, off-angle columns with television panels mounted within, an oval of light with a grid on the floor, and a back wall of metal gates, all evoke a mood that promotes excitement for what is to come.
The play is fictional, but based on the true story of a woman (Claire) sentenced to death in the 1980s. We follow the main character through her life of family abuse, sexual exploitation and more, learning that what looks like a bad criminal rap sheet on the surface, can mean much more in context. Is Claire truly guilty, or a victim?
The show features excellent performances throughout the small cast. Holly Heiser (Fuerza Bruta, Pilobolus) is excellent in the very difficult role of Claire, playing a roller coaster of emotions from teenage mother, to sentenced convict.
Noelle McGrath is truly phenomenal as Claire's mother, a woman who sells her own soul, and even her daughter’s life, for money. From the first moment Ms. McGrath appears, she commands the stage and doesn’t let up. She is equally convincing as the sweet mother and the wrathful villain. I was particularly struck by a scene late in the story where she breaks down and we are allowed to see another side of her character, both for the storyline and for the riveting performance.
Emmy Award winner Anna Holbrook (Another World) plays a no-nonsense TV reporter who befriends Claire. Ms. Holbrook fits the role perfectly, exuding the perfect blend of toughness and compassion. She takes the story of Claire's imminent death sentence to her long lost lover, the Governor, played by Bob Rogerson, who must battle between the politics of the situation and his own morals. I enjoyed watching Mr. Rogerson in the role. He has a unique charm and a very believable demeanor that brought life to the character.
Along the way, we also meet Claire’s husband, whom she accidentally kills (the launch-point of the story). Joseph D. Giardina brings to life this layered and complex villain. I really enjoyed his performance for its brash showiness, mixed with all of his well placed nuances. He makes what might have been a comical character into a very believable person.
Another part of the story is how the media works with Claire’s story. Don Carter plays the part of the TV news executive in a fresh and playful way. He easily swings between disinterest, to hidden lies, to outright blackmail - all with aplomb. He continuously engages us, forcing us to pay attention every step of the way.
The play’s topic is heavy, but director Jake Turner has made sure to keep the pace moving and the interest up throughout. With his great set, terrific casting and well thought out visual distractions, he has made what could be a sleeper into an edge-of-your-seat show.
Credit also goes to very accomplished video inserts and sound design by Andy Cohen, beautiful sets by Pei-Wen Huang-Shea, excellent lighting by Dennis Parichy, and well thought out costumes by Hope Governali.