“Plano” begins and ends in the way that plays do, but what happens in between is rare theater magic.
Paper Chairs co-founder Dustin Wills returns to Austin to direct Will Arbery’s disquieting new script at Ground Floor Theater. After its premiere at Clubbed Thumb and subsequent run off-Broadway earlier this year, the oblique family drama more than gets by without the thrill of exotic “red state” flavor in this first production in Texas.
Anne (Heather Hanna), Genevieve (Hannah Kenah), and Isabel (Paper Chairs co-artistic director Elizabeth Doss) anchor the play as three beleaguered sisters living in the greater Dallas area. The homey-looking porch overhung by an inviting pergola ensnares them, though. We quickly learn that time has broken around these women — that they are living in the past, future, and present all at once and have no agency in its sudden shifts.
“We’re going down to Juarez for New Year’s … See you later. It’s later. Juarez was wonderful,” Anne reports like artillery fire. The effect is one of narrative vertigo, a total disorientation inside the events such that even once a few minutes have passed and you “get” the system, it is still a thrill to find where the women will land in the story next.
In our first foray into this dimension, Anne tells her sisters about her new husband, John (Harold Fisch), the father of her fetus. Although abrupt, the story accords with our expectations for an inciting event. A few breaths later, however, the child is born, John may actually named Juan (though he doesn’t seem to care one way or the other), he may or may not be gay, and he may or may not have married Anne for a green card.
It’s an onslaught that leaves no time to do narrative algebra. And there’s no time because now suddenly slugs are showing up everywhere. Hanna expertly plows through these rapid-fire disappointments while staying at the edge of control.
Without this pacing the play would fall flat, but together the clip and Wills’s less stylized, almost minimal staging meet Arbery’s dialogue with absolute clarity. This is a family who talks about their problems on their porch, after all. They’re altogether normal until little irregularities begin to stand out: the towering plant life seen inside through the window yet bare out on the porch, a little light shining from beneath the stairs, the moment you realize it isn’t clear whose house this actually is.
Co-artistic director Lisa Laratta’s set brilliantly conveys the tensions so that the view from across the street — about where an audience would perhaps be seated — might never betray the plagues these women are enduring.
Kenah is electric and hilarious as the pugnacious middle sister Genevieve. Already trapped in hopeless marriage to manchild Steve (Josh Meyer) when the play begins, the breakdown of her life comes to a head when separating from him causes him to literally duplicate. Rather than excising his toxicity, his second incarnation becomes more dependent on Genevieve as he continues living in her house and eating her food. Kenah’s and Meyer’s comedic sensibilities shine especially in the abundant door slamming, secret portals, and quick changes needed to stage this duplication.
The most frightening character in this hellscape, a Faceless Ghost (Matt Hislope costumed in an inspired mask and suit by Iman Corbani), impinges on the life of the dreamiest and most tender sister, Isabel. Doss doesn’t play these traits weakly, though. As a young woman wrestling with her call to become a saint (a theme for her?), she brings both fire and raw terror to the youngest sister. If Anne and Genevieve are suffering the variation on letting human men into their lives, we might imagine Isabel is suffering letting the divine (still male) into hers.
When this ghost finally catches up with her, Isabel and he engage in an edge-of-your-seat fight made truly unnerving by Fisch’s methodical brutality. It’s chilling to the point of warranting what would otherwise be a contrived, metatheatrical dash out into the lobby. As he draws her back in, Isabel’s repetition of the word “Plano” reveals itself to sound more like “play—no.”
Of course, the play does bear a passing strange resemblance to Chekhov’s Three Sisters. Plano is no Moscow, though, and the name of the town itself becomes a kind of currency or maybe an incantation inside play. Genevieve rails: “Plano is where all the big haired boob ladies live. Plano is like Dallas’s synthetic ghost. Plano is so white. And yet he enjoys Plano. Stop saying Plano! I hate Plano. Who hangs out in Plano?!”
Plano itself maybe the dark matter at the center of this surreal pocket universe where shared memories confuse themselves with nightmares and the structure of reality is steadily disintegrating. When the sisters’ mother (Janelle Buchanan) arrives back home after what seems to be simultaneously an hour and thirty years, even she cannot protect them. Quite movingly, she offers them only a peek at what she calls her “tiny world,” a small refuge from the world of men only allowed to be about the size of a music box, before leaving again.
And it’s not enough.
Like so much of the play, this moment is at once devastating, capacious, and eludes direct interpretation. It’s horrific and horrifically real, and the only solace may be that “Plano” is held together by unmistakable love shared between three sisters weathering plagues of slugs, ghosts, and men.