I wonder how many times the word, gritty, has been used in descriptions of Marsha Norman’s gritty play, “Getting Out,” since it first hit a New York Off-Broadway stage in 1978.
The Journeyman Theater is now performing this tough look at the struggle to “go straight” of a former prostitute just released from the slammer. It’s the Clark Street Playhouse in Crystal City through Sept. 22.
It was the then 31-year-old Norman’s first work, bursting onto the scene at the very tail end of a roughly two-decade-long era of social conscience. It wasn’t as unusual to look into the face of this kind of subject matter then. But after eight years of Reagan, the “conservative revolution” of 1994 and two terms of W, works like this one seem by now, well, very 1970’s.
Norman subsequently won a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award. She wrote the book and lyrics for The Secret Garden and the libretto for the musical The Color Purple, among many other things.
Not, perhaps, being steeped deeply enough in the archival institutional memory of stage plays, I can only assume that the captivating special dramatic technique she used in this play may not be totally original with her.
Regardless, it’s a great idea. Two women, one older, one younger, play the same character on the stage at the same time. Of course, they never “see” each other, except through memories. But the counterpoint is terrific and difficult for all the actors involved.
Tiffany Fillmore is effective as the young Arlie and so is Alia Faith Williams as the older, just released Arlene (the more formal rendering of her name symbolizing her attempt to straighten out her life).
As they take turns moving in and out of the play’s focus, the parameters of this one person’s life become more and more clearly defined. With her younger self also acting out on the stage, the struggle facing the older Arlene seems so much more real. One faces not only the stark, uninspiring realities of eking out a day-to-day existence a day at a time, but the accumulated internal impacts of battered and bruised earlier days leading to the present.
A limited number of characters move in and out of the two simultaneously-portrayed periods of Arlene’s life. The warden in the prison, the guard who later drives her home upon her release, her childhood boyfriend, her abusive adult boyfriend and pimp, her mother, her upstairs neighbor at her lifeless apartment, they and others are foils against which this disjointed biography takes shape.
Arlene faces a life of want and drudgery, released from jail with nothing but the dingy digs where her mother allows her to stay. Her own personality still roiling from the wild and exploited circumstances of her youth, it too presents a barrier to her getting on with her life. But out of virtually nothing but sheer will, she is determined to try, because there’s a young daughter of hers out there somewhere that she craves to see again.
The neighbor says Arlene can probably get a job as a dishwasher at the same restaurant where she works, and could make $220 a week. The boyfriend barges in and insists Arlene come with him to New York, where she could make $220 a night servicing only two or three johns a night.
When it seems like there’s nothing substantive to support her desire to go straight, and the temptation to revert is strongest, it is her inner will that explodes in a determined rage. With her neighbor present, she deconstructs the moments in her prison stay that brought her uncontrolled hostility to its knees.
At this critical moment, an extension of outside support comes in the offer to come upstairs and play cards. This life has a chance.
The production is directed by Deborah Kirby and acted forcefully and uniformly well by the ensemble including Fillmore, Williams, Victor Steele, Lee Liebeskind, Joe Palka, Charlotte Akin, Miles Butler, Jason McCool and Lolita-Marie Clayton. The 15-year-old Butler, from Falls Church, plays the role of Ronnie played Off-Broadway back in the day by Kevin Bacon.
The show runs though Sept. 22 with performances Wednesday through Saturday nights and matinees on Saturdays. Find details at www.journeymantheater.org.