The latest production from Portland Stage is the world premiere of a play that surrounds a serious subject with a lot of humor.
Brenda Withers’ “String Around My Finger” was granted a mainstage production as recognition for winning Portland Stage’s Clauder Competition for New England playwrights, which drew over 200 entries.
The 90-minute play looks at the consequences – personal, social and financial – for a young couple after the miscarriage of an unplanned pregnancy. Do they follow through on their wedding preparations, despite the guilt and grief they both feel and the fact that they don’t really know each very well? What will their families think? And what about those mounting hospital bills?
These and more questions arise in a play that would work on a more intimate scale, but succeeds at being both thought-provoking and entertaining in this full-voiced production.
The setting is a hospital, imaginatively rendered with walls and panels that are moved about between scenes by stagehands in scrubs. In a bed lies Emma, not fully recovered physically or psychologically from the miscarriage. Kip, the putative father, hovers about, solicitous but also not yet able to confront what has happened.
Making their mainstage debuts at Portland Stage, local actors Marjolaine Whittlesey and Chris Davis effectively capture, in addition to the emotional confusion, a sense of their essentially good-natured characters’ suddenly awkward social situation. Are they going to be “those people,” defined by what has happened? Can they ever get back to being their old selves?
Director Sally Wood has noted, in an interview on the Portland Stage website, her belief that “laughter and sadness are linked in some way.” The laughter here arrives in a big way with the appearance of two very funny characters, Kip’s sister Lisa and physician’s assistant David.
Danielle Slavick was a riot on opening night as the high-energy sister whose generous heart competes with her rapid-fire mouth to solve all the couple’s problems and get them back on track with their lives. Slavick knows where the laughs are in this piece and, both physically and verbally, charged up the proceedings considerably.
David Mason, as the medical professional, is a mildly sarcastic sweetie whose seeming indifference gives way to a personal take on the situation. His character’s stabilizing presence came through loud (indeed) and clear.
When all the laughs might have tipped the balance away from the more somber elements within the play, along comes Lisa Stathoplos, in her brief role as an offbeat, wheelchair-bound sage who suggests the makings of a resolution to it all.
Containing more subtlety than might at first be apparent in this production, this winning play earns its honor.
Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.