NEW YORK (AP) — Sometimes a crisis will bring a family closer together, but sometimes it separates them instead.
In Greg Pierce's tense, affecting new play, "Slowgirl," a family has already been fractured by a crisis seven years earlier. Now 17-year-old Becky has arrived at her reclusive, long-absentee Uncle Sterling's remote jungle cabin in Costa Rica, while in the midst of some big trouble.
A spirited, well-acted and thought-provoking production opened Monday night to inaugurate the new Claire Tow Theater, atop the Vivian Beaumont, as part of the Lincoln Center Theater/LCT3 series producing rising playwrights.
Sarah Steele is sweetly brash as Becky, whose mother is Sterling's once-close sister. In serious legal jeopardy at home, Becky's been bundled off to visit her far-away uncle for a few days while a classmate, Marybeth, remains in a coma. Becky and a couple of her friends face possible criminal charges as the result of a party-time prank gone horribly wrong, that involved the mentally challenged Marybeth, cruelly nicknamed Slowgirl by Becky's friends.
Sterling is appealingly enacted by Zeljko Ivanek as diffident, nervous and a bit shell-shocked at times, as Becky's liveliness and candor disrupt his solitary life. He hasn't seen Becky or her family since he left the U.S. under a cloud seven years earlier, and is warring with some inner guilt, along with feeling betrayed by her parents.
Awkwardly at first, the two begin to reconnect over fruit smoothies, while bubbly, judgmental Becky questions pretty much everything about Sterling's choices and lifestyle. Pierce's vivid dialogue and Steele's captivating demeanor thoroughly convey the know-it-all attitude of a modern teenager, superficially sophisticated but, especially in this case, at heart still a frightened child.
Anne Kauffman's subtle, thoughtfully paced direction captures the tension underneath their initially casual chat. Over a few days, they both gradually open up and spill some painful secrets, aided in part by walking a meditation maze Sterling has built out of stone in the jungle.
While the two often discuss serious issues, the play is full of humorous moments, thanks to Becky's spirited prattle and Sterling's startled reactions. She tells Sterling that she wants to die outside, not in a medical facility, explaining, "I wanna make sure if my soul gets released at the exact moment I die, it goes right back into nature and not into like, cheesy wallpaper."
Rachel Hauck's detailed simple, rustic cabin, surrounded by timbers painted shades of tropical green, is further authenticated by Japhy Weideman's atmospheric lighting and a medley of effective jungle creature sounds provided by Leah Gelpe.
Although they seem to be good for one another, complete redemption may be impossible for either Becky or her uncle. But Sterling valiantly tries to give Becky some perspective and strength to face whatever lies ahead, if her melodramatic teenage impulses don't get the better of her first.