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.
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.