How do you tell the story of a woman’s transformation into a tree? What does that even look like, especially on stage? Does it happen by degrees — does she begin by becoming something more pliable, like a strand of ivy or a sapling, or an artichoke? Playwright E. Hunter Spreen, in Care of Trees (at Shotgun Players’ Ashby Stage through June 26), tells the story of budding arboriform Georgia Swift (Liz Sklar) by showing the distance Georgia must travel from her partner, Travis Dekalb (Patrick Russell), in order to fulfill her destiny. Illness becomes the metaphor (or the medium) through which Travis and Georgia, at first, understand what is happening, and the tension between them feels familiar and true — as they investigate first medical, then psychological, and finally spiritual causes for Georgia’s malaise, Georgia moves towards acceptance, and Travis feels abandoned.
Russell and Sklar both give emotional, energetic performances, mastering a wordy and relentless script and committing themselves fiercely to every line. They talk over one another, exhaust themselves in screaming rows, recite litanies of possible diagnoses like Latin tongue-twisters. The play (directed by Susannah Martin) could tolerate a great deal more physicality and less talking. What movement is present in the production seems like an afterthought, though Nina Ball’s magnificent set — which evokes a forest, a trendy loft apartment, and the many levels of human consciousness — seems designed to be played on. (Indeed, at the end of the performance, one little boy from the audience just couldn’t help himself). The transformation at the center of the play isn’t convincingly embodied by Sklar — she simply doesn’t move, think, or talk like a tree would if it could move, think, or talk.
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Though every aspect of Georgia’s treatment is highly ironized (the portrayal of psychotherapy in the play is straight out of a Woody Allen movie), so is every aspect of the couple’s day-to-day life. Home videos projected on drop cloths hung around the stage create vague existential unease; Travis narrates his quotidian activities (perfecting the three-minute egg, shaving, etc.) as if he can’t believe anyone ever did anything so absurd. Truly, there are events that render the commonplace uncanny, that make of reality a thick soup of frightening contradictions. But in watching Care of Trees there’s nothing to hold on to, no sense of who these people are that isn’t tainted by mockery. As a result, even details about them that should be endearing (he loves the White Sox, she calls him Duckie; they’re cute and smart and young) become somehow distasteful.
This is unfortunate, because the play has invested a lot in its’ characters’ attractiveness, to each other and to the audience. We’re supposed to feel that the metamorphosis that takes Georgia away from Travis is all the more traumatic and disruptive because they really had a good thing going (though a play about an overweight republican dishwasher salesman whose frumpy, anxious wife turns into a philodendron would be just as interesting if not more; the play’s sexiness is as alienating as its sarcasm). But their relationship never delivers on these high expectations. There doesn’t seem to be much of a there, there.
The best moments in the play are slower, more reflective ones—like when Travis and Georgia, a little awkward and embarrassed, sit on the floor with legs crossed and enact an exercise from couples’ therapy. It’s both funny and tender, and a good respite from the sometimes terrifying and painful sweep of the play. One can’t help but wish Spreen had sent her characters to couples’ therapy before sitting down to write.
Care of Trees by E. Hunter Spreen runs through June 26 at Shotgun Player’s Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, Calif.