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The lights come up on a modest house, in which a rather large man stands, chin jutted, mouth opened, eyes bulging, his face only two, perhaps three, inches away from one of many swirling pink, purple, and blue impres­sionist paintings hanging on the wall. This is Curtis. 

“He’s mes­merized.” 

Now this is Thelma, played by Anne Connors. 

She is a feisty but aging woman suf­fering in the early stages of dementia. Her star­tlingly crude line, emblematic of her Betty White-style free loving old white woman char­acter, launched the audience into the world pre­miere of the play “On Pine Knoll Street,” by Mark Cornell. The play ran at the Sauk Theater in Jonesville Feb. 7 – 16. 

This first line sets the tone of the play: unnec­essary vul­garity. The paintings Curtis stares at are by Marlyn, Thelma’s daughter. They are, in fact, of female gen­i­talia, and they cover every wall on the set. In quick suc­cession, this opening scene whacks the audience over the head with crude sexual jokes and innuendo that just barely wane as the play unfolds. 

If you can get past this first scene, Broadly, “On Pine Knoll Street”  follows Thelma’s rela­tionship with her 40-year-old, unmarried daughter Marlyn, por­trayed by MJ Dulmage, who she’s forced to live with as her dementia worsens. In the first scene, the age old battle between the will of mother and daughter, worsened by Thelma’s bel­ligerence and frus­tration at her con­dition, com­mences as Marlyn pre­pares for a trip to Florida with her book club. In this first scene Marlyn gives next door neighbor Curtis, played by director Trinity Bird, in whose care she leaves Thelma, metic­ulous instruc­tions on how to care for her mother and admin­ister her daily meds. 

The story then follows the growing com­pan­ionship between Thelma and Curtis, who actually pays attention to her — in stark con­trast with Maryln who often answers her mother with a snarky “Ok, mom,” and a sign of frus­tration. Thelma and Curtis get along hand­somely. 

Unfor­tu­nately, much of the beauty of the human con­nec­tions formed during the play are over­shadowed by its per­vasive vul­garity and empty humanism, which, in itself, signals 

A major plot point is that Thelma, due to her daughter’s crudely eclectic decor and her cats — also named after female gene­talia — believes Marlyn is gay, and is offended that she won’t “come out to her own mother.” 

Throughout the play, Thelma teases and wheedles her daughter about her sex­u­ality, and refuses to believe that Marlyn is straight despite her con­stant protes­ta­tions. 

Marlyn, a grown woman of 50, finally yells at her mother about the “earth-shat­tering” sexual rela­tions she had with a man in order to con­vince her that she is straight. This moment marks the shift between the two women; sud­denly they ‘under­stand’ each other. Within the context of the play, this moment is clearly sup­posed to rep­resent a great healing between the women. They laugh and cry a little bit and then con­tinue on. Thelma is happy for her daughter’s sexual con­quests. 

But the dryness of this rela­tional climax is espe­cially high­lighted by Curtis’s char­acter. Whether inten­tionally or unin­ten­tionally, Cornell’s Curtis presents an alter­native to Thelma and Marlyn’s starved rela­tionship. 

Curtis seems gifted in his ability to quickly pen­e­trate Thelma’s can­tan­kerous cyn­i­cality, per­suading her to dance for him on their first afternoon together. In this truly beau­tiful scene, Connors cap­tures the misty nos­talgia of an eldery and rapidly declining woman as she trapses the familiar mental paths of her youth. 

In a brave choice, Bird elected to block the scene without music. Thus, as Thelma dances, piti­fully and beau­ti­fully, in a silence only broken by her own ghostly whisper of a for­gotten tune, the audience sees double. There is Thelma as the is now, broken and shuf­fling, but super­im­posed over this tem­poral reality is Thelma as she once was and as she, in this moment, believes herself to be: young, happy, beau­tiful, noticed. 

This is Curtis’ magic. As we learn more about Curtis, we dis­cover that his son Mitchell is severely men­tally dis­abled. Curtis is a writer and a stay at home dad because, while his wife can’t even bear to be alone with her own child, Curtis can handle Mitchell. 

In one of the more pro­found moments of the play Curtis and his wife have a fight. His wife decides to leave him after having what looks like a panic attack over all the stress of her job, her rela­tionship, but, most of all, her inability to interact with her son. In response, Curtis reveals some­thing of his phi­losophy. 

“You have to enter into [Mitchell’s] world.” 

You have to play with him, eat with him, run and jump with him, he says.  In short you have to expe­rience the world through his eyes. 

In this moment, the audience realizes that this is how Curtis relates to everyone in the play, and why he is so unex­plainably likable in his blandness; he becomes a mirror into which other char­acters project them­selves. Through this, the audience can under­stand the other char­acters better. In doing so, Curtis, too, comes to under­stand, and then to love the people around him. 

Bird’s direc­torial and acting choices further high­light Curtis’s self-sac­rifice. When Mitchell begins to jump up and down uncon­trol­lably — a symptom of his dis­ability — Curtis, a large man,  takes his own advice and jumps with him despite his injured back. He gets down on his knees before his wife to calm her during her panic attack. He phys­i­cally sup­ports Thelma con­stantly as she shuffles around her house. The physical strain of his actions were subtly visible on Bird’s face, as he dis­re­garded his own comfort to best carry the burdens of others. 

This, of course, explains why Thelma imme­di­ately relates to him, and why he is so self-assured in caring for her as she con­tinues to decline. This is why he also becomes the saving, stable force as rela­tion­ships con­stantly fluc­tuate, break down, and reform. 

Ulti­mately, in spite of the star­tling vul­garity and the char­acters and rela­tion­ships that starve on a vacant humanism, Curtis pro­vides a light. He shows that to serve is to empty oneself in order to be filled with the burdens of another. And, to do so, is to love them truly and fully.