Be Aggressive

Local Arts Reviews

'Be Aggressive': Hole to Whole

State Theater, through Oct. 5

Running Time: 2 hrs.

Laura is in a hurry to get back to cheerleading practice. She's missed some sessions, and if she doesn't get back soon, she tells her dad, she won't be able to learn the welcome cheer, and she'll get booted from the squad. (And seeing the squad rehearse their "H-E-L-L-O" cheer without fifth member Laura to provide the crucial last letter -- sending a totally different message -- makes it clear why.) But her dad, who wants Laura at home after school, just can't see why cheerleading is such a big deal. "You jump up and down," he tells her, "and you yell." To which she fiercely replies, "That's not what cheerleading is about."

Certainly not for Laura, not now. For this high schooler in Annie Weisman's Be Aggressive, it's about getting out of the house after her mother's sudden death in a hit-and-run accident. It's about escaping the void left by that death and finding something to fill it, something that's still the way it was before that tragedy, something that lets her be a teen instead of a substitute mom, buying groceries, fixing meals, and taking care of her sister. In a life turned chaotic, cheerleading provides order and ritual and, maybe most importantly, a release for all those emotions roiling inside.

It isn't that Laura sees all that herself. For her, cheerleading is a calling, a holy order in which commitment is measured by one's ability to do a standing back-flip -- basically, to hurl one's head at the ground with perfect "Bible Belt intensity," not the "perky coastal shit" of her SoCal squadmates. So she and her best friend Leslie light out for the Spirit Institute of the South, a North Carolina training camp of mythical stature for pompom shakers.

Laura may not see what this journey is about, but we do. Layered into Weisman's script are glimpses of Laura affected by the hole in her world: holding onto her sister to comfort her, defending her decision to add miso broth to rice for a family meal, recalling that the family ATM code was rooted in her mother's love for the ocean. And in the State Theater Company production, it's plain in the lost look on the face of Jenny Larson as Laura: Her features deflate with a sense of abandonment, like a child who has strayed too far from safety and is suddenly faced with a world much larger than she ever realized, alone.

But Laura isn't alone. Leslie, the Thelma to her Louise, was abandoned by her father, leaving her to butt heads with her mother (Tere Myers, equally smart and smoky). Kira Pozehl's wholesome girl-next-door looks provide a wicked contrast to her behavior as Leslie, whose cutthroat tactics in manipulation would make Machiavelli blush. Then there are Laura's 11-year-old sister -- Taylor McPhail, about as appealingly precocious as they come -- who wants to think like an adult but who still has the heart of a child; and her father, who proves no more adept at dealing with grief than his daughters. His solution is to throw himself back into his work, providing an environmental-impact study that will show it's OK to build a new freeway through some coastal wetlands. Lucien Douglas, tanned and robust, looks like a man who belongs in a place called Vista Del Sol, and he reels off data about real estate appreciation and bluff erosion with smooth efficiency. But when he stops, Douglas' face goes slack, as if he's just remembered something precious he's lost, and we glimpse who he really is.

The depth with which these characters grapple with loss, and the tenderness they display, is at times surprising, if only because of the setting: Southern California, a region as notoriously shallow as the roots of the eucalyptus tree that Laura's mom planted in their back yard. Weisman skewers SoCal culture from Spanish stucco to smoothie shops, breast augmentation to sun-dried tomatoes, and she's ably supported here by designer David Potts' tall, slender palm trees made of spiraling columns of yellow lights topped by green light fronds and costumes rich in lime greens, vermillions, magentas, lavenders, and other beach-front hues. Weisman's writing manages to be simultaneously sharp and blunt, nailing Cali in comic detail while baldly calling down our national fixation on appearance, class, and the new. Still, she never abandons her characters, never gives them less than their emotional due. Director Scott Kanoff serves her well in this regard, much as he did G.B. Shaw in Mrs. Warren's Profession; he draws out the humor in the critique of the culture, but he leaves the characters room to breathe, to feel, to discover.

When we are faced with holes, our tendency is to fill them in as quickly as we can and move on as if there was never any void there, no emptiness needing to be acknowledged. Be Aggressive reminds us that sometimes we need to reach into those holes and see just how deep they go, to remember what was in them, to allow nature to fill them. There's no hurry. Give them time.

Ready? OK ...

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Be Aggressive, Annie Weisman, State Theater Company, Scott Kanoff, Jenny Larson, Kira Pozehl, Lucien Douglas, Tere Myers, Taylor McPhail, David Potts

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