“Vanishing Points” is not a happy play.
I mean, when the tagline begins with the phrase “A Gruesome act of violence..” I’m not spoiling anything by saying that.
It’s a play about death and grief, so don’t go in expecting tap routines and comedy numbers, and you’ll be all set.
Martin Jones’ script is based on the real-life, still unsolved murder of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska in 1972. The script, though I’ve no doubt was written with the best intentions, is far from perfect. It’s a bit jumbly, with fantasy sequences and asides that sometimes seem to come from nowhere, such as a sequence where Beth remembers her mother brushing her sisters hair. As the mother goes off in revelry about how Beth’s sister, Barbara, has beautiful hair, I found myself thinking.. “Okay, and?” My only true complaints with the whole production are script-related, in fact. Jones likes himself a cliche. Kudos to the talented and hard-working cast for being able to rise above a couple of doozy lines such as “Will this hurting ever stop?” and “From the doom and gloom in the room I don’t have to guess what you’re talking about.” When the dialouge isn’t Lifetime-movie-esque, the production really shines.
But I get it, you know. Martin Jones was going for something dark and honest, yet metatheatrical, and I get it, even if he didn’t quite get to the level he aspired to.
Point of Contention’s production of this script helps the show immensely.
Largely because director Dan Foss knows how to cast a show, and his actors for “Vanishing Points” are all right on the mark.
Stacie Hauenstein gets the daunting task of playing moody artist Beth, our main character and one of two surviving Peak sisters. As the girl who by all rights should have died along with her family (had she not been bratty and off for a motorcycle ride with her stoner boyfriend instead of getting ready for church like her parents and little sister), Beth is obviously wrecked by guilt for most of the play. Hauenstein manages to convey this without ever seeming annoying or overwrought, and that’s saying something. In the wrong hands, Beth could be a much harder leading lady to like.
As the other surviving Peak sister, Fran, Morgan Manasa is delivering a wonderful performance. Manasa is incredibly natural onstage and totally believable as the suburbanite wife and mother also struggling with the loss of her family, in addition to her unstable marriage. Fran is a grounding presence in a show which could easily turn to the metaphorical and the melodramatic. It’s Fran’s character (and Manasa’s performance) that keeps it anchored to the ground.
Annie Silvinski and Rick Levine play Beth’s salt-of-the-earth parents, but also double in other roles. While Silvinski is a tad grating as Beth’s mother Carolyn (probably due to the script never portraying her as anything other than incredibly nagging) she’s warm and lovely as can be as Peg, the owner of an artists colony in the desert. Levine is endearing as both Beth’s father, Walter, and as her Uncle Cliff, who is obsessed with solving the case. Cliff has a long monologue about his discovery of the bodies, and as Levine delivers it, it’s a powerful moment.
I would be remiss in talking about this show and not mentioning the huge contribution made by Victoria Bucknell, who plays both Beth’s bratty little sister Barbara and beach-dwelling vagabond Vicki. In a show this heavy, you need comic relief, and that’s where Bucknell comes in and shines. A character the audience can openly find joy in is needed, and dear, hilarious, Vicki is precisely that. Armed with tattoos, bracelets, and a beach chair she uses to great effect, Bucknell allows the audience a moment to come up for air in a sea of grief. She’s also adorable as Barbara, the stereotypical little sister. This girl is an exciting talent, and one to watch.
Chris Sanderson, Mark E. Penzien, and Tony Gasbarro also make solid contributions to the show in their various roles. Sanderson, in particular, does well as Beth’s vaguely unsavory pot-smoking boyfriend.
Foss’s direction keeps things moving, and tries to make sense of the senseless – both of the randomness of the murder at the heart of the story and also of some of the odd asides in Jones’ script. The set is kept simple, as this show covers a wide range of locations (Nebraska, New York, Evanston), and things move fluidly from one location to another.
Brandon Baisden’s sound design is effective in most places, though the constant use of a jazz refrain gets a bit overdone in the first act. Erica Hohn’s costumes fit the period of the show without ever becoming distracting. The light design – by Jess Harpeneau – is a bit dark in places, but then again – so’s the play. (There may have also been a burned out light, and since I know diddle about lighting design, take my comments with a grain of salt, please.)
It doesn’t seem right to say I loved this show, as it’s a hard story and a hard reality to love. However, art comes from darkness as well as from love and joy, and I commend my friends at POC for taking a chance on this brave show. Much like life, it’s not easy and there aren’t any hard answers.
Visit www.pointofcontention.org for more information.