“Yes, it really rains onstage!”
That was the promotional tagline for the stage adaptation of Singin’ in the Rain and the most interesting thing about Jennifer Lane’s Harlowe, a listless little play about healing, currently receiving a watery world premiere production at Florida Atlantic University’s Theatre Lab.
As the audience enters the intimate Lab space, a center-stage bathtub is already filling from a downspout shower fixture. It is the prime focus of resident designer Michael McClain’s set, so much so that the fixture gets the final curtain call. It seems only fair, since for the previous hour and 40 minutes, the downspout has been upstaging the rest of the play.
Harlowe (Leah Sessa, who also had the title role in Ronia, the Robber’s Daughter as FAU’s season began) is the younger of two daughters in a family still shell-shocked by the death of their mother. Harlowe’s escape is to submerge herself in the tub of a bathroom as busy as Grand Central Station. Despite her tub occupancy – and occasional lack of clothes – Harlowe’s dad (Michael Gioia), kid brother (Elijah Moseley) and former high school boyfriend (Jordon Armstrong) each intrude on her privacy, the last by crawling through the bathroom window. It’s that kind of play.
As Harlowe rises from the tub following a poetic prologue of her inner thoughts, we see that her body is riddled with purplish bruises. How she got them is one of several secrets that get revealed over time, including how she came to lose her sense of touch and how her mother died. That death is the event that brings Harlowe and her sister Reese (Katherine McDonald) home from New York, a reunion of healing, score-settling and truth-telling. Reese reverts to old resentments of Harlowe, with her questionable view that she had an easier time of matters growing up.
Harlowe, on the other hand, resents the fact that Reese never returned home in time to attend their mother’s funeral. Add in Reese’s jealousy over Scott and things should come to a boil, but Lane keeps the play’s temperature on low simmer.
Director Matt Stabile does not help the situation by maintaining a sluggish pace throughout. Clearly intentional, perhaps he wanted the production to feel submerged in water, but it only manages to drain the evening of its energy.
Sessa, known mainly for musical roles, gives a refreshingly unmannered performance as Harlowe, handling her several poetic monologues with ease and earning a modicum of sympathy for the character. McDonald’s Reese is more abrasive, though she makes her displeasure over being thrust into a parental role understandable. As their dad, Gioia spends much of his time in a fog, aided by his fixation with the liquor cabinet, and Moseley is aptly awkward as the kid brother, though the role is largely superfluous.
As he ends his first season as artistic director, Stabile has a middling track record of plays of unexceptional quality, with Harlowe as the low point. Nice bathroom and shower, though.
HARLOWE, FAU Theatre Lab, Parliament Hall, Florida Atlantic University campus, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Through Sunday, April 14. $35. Call 561-297-6124 or visit fau.edu/artsandletters/theatrelab/.