With Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them, Madison's Forward Theater Company has taken its next big step. Torture is the Midwest premiere of Christopher Durang's acclaimed political comedy, and Forward's first fully-staged play.
While it's not a perfect play (and what is?), the crowd on a frigid opening night clearly appreciated Torture's political relevance and sheer goofiness. With characters ranging from a right-wing dad with a hair-trigger temper to creepy "porn-again Christian" Rev. Mike, Torture is an outlandish take on contemporary political and cultural tensions.
The catalyst for Torture is the drunken marriage between Felicity and Zamir. After meeting and getting wasted at Hooters, the two are hastily hitched -- something Felicity doesn't even remember the next morning (when a grinning Zamir tells her she was "Apocalypse Now-drunk").
Zamir (Juan Gabriel Ruiz), who claims to be Irish even though he's got a Middle Eastern accent, is sketchily employed at best. He lashes out when Felicity suggests annulment, leaving her trapped in a marriage to a possible terrorist. Her parents are of little help; her father (Norman Moses) flies off the handle at the slightest provocation, and her mother is constantly embroidering and prattling about theater.
Though playwright Durang's political sympathies are not hard to divine from the characterizations in the play, there's a little more ambiguity than at first glance. For all her looniness, Felicity's mother, Luella, does have real opinions about real things -- from stem-cell research to the Terri Schiavo case -- yet she generally keeps them to herself. It's easier than being steamrolled by her domineering Republican husband. Luella could be considered a reflection of liberals who don't know how to fight for their own viewpoints, or would rather retreat into ineffectiveness.
Yet Durang's comic style is ultimately more anarchic than allegorical, and, as Luella, Sarah Day cuts loose. She's like Donna Reed simmering with suppressed rage. While Day, who is a core company member at American Players Theatre, certainly has played comedy before, local audiences won't have seen her like this; she's clearly getting to flex some different acting muscles. She's a hoot, and brilliantly suited to this role.
While Day nearly steals the show, the rest of the professional cast is strong enough that that doesn't happen. Fellow APT actor Colleen Madden has an enjoyably silly turn as Hildegarde, a nave, ladylike Texan (well, except for her constantly falling panties) who shares the concerns of Felicity's father about terrorist plots.
Richard Ganoung, in flip-flops and a Hawaiian shirt over his clerical collar, is an appropriately sleazy Rev. Mike, the minister whose side job is making porn. As "The Voice," Michael Herold introduces a playful "meta" element to the proceedings; sometimes a bewildered Felicity can hear his voiceover narrations, and sometimes she can't. And when he actually appears on stage, Herold announces "I'll be the bartender in this scene." While Durang didn't invent this sort of self-referential humor, it works well here.
As Felicity, Leia Espericueta is the closest thing to a stand-in for the audience; she's a rational person caught in a crazy situation, trying desperately to find her way out. Her behavior adds a welcome, grounding note of realism to the swirling wackiness around her.
Torture has an unusual, ambiguous ending that I won't reveal here. Suffice it to say that it lends a hopeful note to the proceedings, though the pessimist in me wasn't sure I completely buy it. But that's OK -- as Torture suggests, we've got to work out our problems in the real world, not the world of fantasy.
Directed by Jennifer Uphoff Gray, Why Torture is Wrong, and the People Who Love Them is timely, funny, and a good choice for Madison audiences. While a few moments are too silly for their own good, it's refreshing to see something that engages so clearly with our present concerns.