Finborough Theatre Spring 2016
In Stone Face playwright Eve Leigh has taken on a subject that almost defies dramatisation, not because it is inherently undramatic – far from it – but because telling the story requires methods that interfere with the drama.
There are, mercifully rarely, cases on record of children raised in such total isolation – in some cases locked in a room or closet for years – that their mental development is irreparably damaged.
(The most famous and fully documented case was of the California girl known as 'Genie' rescued from her parents at age 13 in 1970. With great effort she gained some minimal language skills and socialization but has remained institutionalised all her life.)
Leigh imagines a similar case, of fifteen-year-old Catherine, and traces the preliminary attempts to rescue the person trapped in a near-autistic withdrawal.
You may have spotted a problem already. Just as I had to explain the premise before I could begin judging the production, the play requires immense amounts of exposition and explanation, both at the start and along the way.
For instance, another character has to explain that Genie's case showed that children deprived of language until their teens can learn vocabulary but not grammar, and later spell out the significance of Catherine attempting her first deliberate joke.
Another difficulty is that the nature of the story inevitably involves an element of being a psychiatric case study, leading us to relate to it with academic objectivity, and pushing us away from, rather than drawing us into emotional involvement with the characters.
And the playwright compounds this error by writing in a scientific lecture, one character's detailed account of a dream, and another's extended summary of a film, each of them inviting us to pull back and play amateur Freudian.
These are, as I said, almost inescapable inherent dangers lying in the material, and playwright Leigh and director Roy Alexander Weise have not fully conquered them.
(Points of reference for this play include The Miracle Worker, about the education of deaf-blind-mute Helen Keller; the film Rainman, about an autistic man and his brother; and even The King's Speech, about the speech therapy of George VI.
If you know any of those, you know how much their success depended on moving past the case study and developing the characterisations and relationships, so that the play or film became about the people, not the medical condition.)
Although the published text does not require this, director Weise has cast two actresses in the play's four roles.
Ellie Turner plays both Catherine and the healthy older half-sister who has just met her, while Liz Jadav plays Catherine's psychologist and the reporter whose newspaper is funding Catherine's treatment in return for exclusive coverage.
Turner obviously has the flashier acting job, alternating between Catherine's very tentative emergence from her mental imprisonment and the sister's quick wit and real emotional concern.
It is her performance in both roles that most successfully fights the play's leaning toward objective distance and pulls us into the characters and their emotions.
Jadav has less of a gap between her two characters and doesn't distinguish sufficiently between them or define either fully enough for them to take on life beyond their plot functions.
That the playwright, director and actors are able to create any sense at all of a human story in this dramatised scientific study is an accomplishment. But it is not enough to make Stone Face fully engaging or satisfying.
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Review - Stone Face - Finborough Theatre 2016