Elizabeth Doss' new play is about lost souls not sure when to give up and go home

At sea: Katie Bender as Anne and Jesse Bertron as Walter (Photo by Erica Nix)

The play begins and ends with a sailor gone overboard and lost at sea. The middle is also filled with lost sailors, even if their seafaring is not so literal. Elizabeth Doss' new play Mast from Paper Chairs is a story about lost souls not sure when to give up and go home.

Mast features characters drawn from the playwright's family history. The day before leaving for Europe to fight in World War II, Walter (Jesse Bertron) enjoys a romantic but hard-edged encounter with Anne (Katie Bender) in her hometown of Abilene, Texas. The quick liaison results in their son Michael (at all ages played by Sean Francis Moran). Desperate to escape home but without much forethought, Anne agrees to join Walter on a "secret mission" in the Dominican Republic. There, Walter hobnobs with the local dictator (Noel Gaulin) in between coded telegrams, and Anne festers as she raises their son in a place where she refuses to learn the language. Things go about as well as you'd expect.

Anne is the most fascinating character of the play. She is catlike: sleek, sometimes seductive, occasionally cuddly, but loyalty and genuine affection are not in her emotional vocabulary. She is ultimately self-serving. She leaves Walter and takes Michael back to Abilene, where they live as outcasts, and she does a terrible job raising him.

And here is a thorny path to walk. In demonstrating how Anne fails as a mother, the play shows her failing angrily at breastfeeding and pushing Michael off on the hired milkmaid. This Freudian move unfortunately makes use of a sad stereotype about early motherhood, that loving mothers are the ones who succeed at breastfeeding, and those who do not lack motivation, love, or some combination. A playwright's constant challenge is to show rather than tell and, in showing, to efficiently convey what is happening with a character. However, this particular set of actions works only as long as those watching buy into certain assumptions about what makes a good mother.

Regardless of her lactation problems, Anne has plenty of other moves that keep her from winning Mother of the Year. She is unfriendly and quick to anger. Michael grows up wild and stubborn. For a time, he is nurtured by Loretta (Tiffany Nicely-Williams), a maid and caretaker whose husband was lost at sea and who lives under the heavy belief that he will someday return. Meanwhile, as Michael ages, Walter contracts throat cancer and withers away.

All of the characters share a thirst for something faraway and different. How all of their stories resolve, I can't exactly say. (In full disclosure, I lost 10 minutes in the lobby to a minor family emergency that resulted in a quarter-inch scar, and you should see the other guy.) But eventually, in some reality that is perhaps only imagined, Walter and Anne confront each other with honesty and without bitterness. Onstage, they deliver the resolution that likely eluded them in real life.

Diana Lynn Small's direction is smart and imaginative in a way that brings unity to a challenging story. It is a smart decision to use a single set from designer Lisa Laratta, allowing the characters to operate atop the debris of their earlier years. The dominant design aspect is perhaps the sound, with music by Mark Stewart. Throughout, the show is backed by a mournful picking at an electric bass, which both unifies and muddles the play, as if through memory.


Salvage Vanguard Theater, 2803 Manor Rd.
Through Aug. 8
Running time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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Paper Chairs, Elizabeth Doss, Diana Lynn Small, Katie Bender, Jesse Bertron, Noel Gaulin, Sean Francis Moran, Tiffany Nicely-Williams, Lisa Laratta, Mark Stewart

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