Monday, February 10, 2014

Review: Trying to Take Off After a Crash

Our society has an affinity for creating newfound celebrities. Taking stories with average people and turning them into icons, bringing them to unimaginable levels of stardom. In Kari Bentley-Quinn’s The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens, the title character, a flight attendant, is the lone survivor of a plane crash and is soon thrust into the public spotlight. Despite the title of the play, we’re actually watching the descent of this woman.
Bentley-Quinn’s story of a very topical theme is quite interesting. To watch a woman deal with the unexpected curveballs of fame while trying to deal with the psychology and physical ailments of the crash is appealing. But when we’re thrown a love story curveball, the plot becomes so contrived, it seems suited for daytime. Very early on we learn that after the crash Sybil stays with the first responder and his family before she is cleared to travel home to Chicago. And in that time, Joe, the first responder, who becomes infamous in his own right for a viral picture, falls in love with Sybil. Though we never get to see this happen, it’s too forced to believe. And it’s by far the least likeable plotline within the play. We see Sybil’s depth as a character as the caretaker for her nephew. It’s real and exciting. Joe’s painful pursuit of a woman who has no interest in him takes the story to a different place. Additionally, the script falls into the trap of expecting the audience to instantly fall in love with Sybil with very little to show. She has all these fans on the internet, but there’s nothing textually that makes us want to be her fan. It’s hard to have sympathy for a character when we’re told how we’re supposed to feel.
Photo courtesy of Kacey Anisa Stamats
The ensemble does a fine job navigating Bentley-Quinn’s story. In a role so rich in possibilities, Jennifer Gordon Thomas seemed to walk her way through the play. Her character has depth but it takes until the end for us to truly see it. Sybil’s physicality, or lack there of, are a huge part of the character. Gordon Thomas seems to waver inconsistently with how damaged Sybil is. Until the timeline of the play is revealed on the Tessa MacKenzie show, you’re kept wondering how long after the crash the play takes place as it appears Sybil has made a miraculous recovery. When it is revealed it's been a year, you have to wonder, does America really remember Sybil Stevens? Of the secondary characters, Jordan Tierney gives a strong standout performance. As Derek, Sybil’s on the mend nephew, Tierney shows quite some range. Additionally, Samantha Fairfield Walsh as Valerie, Tessa’s researcher, brings heart and authenticity. After accidentally revealing  a part of Sybil’s life that was supposed to remain secret, the most intriguing storyline was watching Valerie’s own redemption of helping Sybil find redemption within herself. 
The stage was too big a space to handle this intimate script. Director Christopher Diercksen did his best maneuvering his cast around the large stage. Whenever an actor would veer close to the edge, lighting designer Aaron Porter was forced to add unmasked lights. We also spent a lot of time watching Gordon Thomas’ Sybil trek from couch to fridge with her walker. Perhaps if Meredith Ries nicely barebones set was scaled in to take up less of the stage, it would feel less exaggerated.
All in all, The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens is chockfull of potential. There are some great moments but the play never quite takes off.