American Fanfare

Through twining narratives, Theater Schmeater examines recent history.

America the beautiful, America the metaphor: Local playwright Josh Beerman's new play, Miss America, is a sprawling, symphonic pastiche of twining stories that seeks to capture a tumultuous era in Seattle history and in the country at large. What he has in his sights is that downbeat, bated-breath moment after the tech bubble burst and right before a certain shockingly entropic civic demonstration shook the world's faith in free-market machismo. Pegging just this side of epic, Beerman's ambitious swipe at the zeitgeisty canon has something of the feel of Robert Altman's Nashville, with its rough-cut overlapping dialogue and proliferating mass of narratives that collide and sing out in a kind of inverted national anthem.

At the center of Miss America is Charlie (Jason Marr), a young, fragile-souled writer whose struggle with artistic purity is nearing crisis level. Orbiting Charlie are a clutch of characters—friends, relatives, love interests—each approaching his or her own moral and spiritual reckoning. Thomas (Ray Tagavilla) clings desperately to the notion that the porn links he sells are nothing more than a commodity powered by supply and demand; his wife (and Charlie's sister) Sarah (Erin Knight) is a burgeoning agoraphobic addicted to the Internet; their friend Molly (Jane May) has recently gone blind, and her husband, Max (Brandon Whitehead), can't console her; Alvin (Philip D. Clarke) is a pastor who has lost his faith in God, and his deaf wife, Diane (Lindsay Evans), is terrified of the potential void between her and best friend Molly.

There's more, but you get the idea. Despite some heavy-handed moments—"I am a lack of sight," Molly despairs, "I am an absence"—Beerman's writing is both strong and subtle enough to realize the thematic challenge he's set himself. The characters are fully realized, and the staccato, stop-start dialogue is authentic. Director Rob West does a bang-up job juggling the various story lines, admirably patient in revealing connections and giving a strong emotional punch to many of the transitions between scenes. There are some stunning moments. The introductory scene between Clarke and Evans, in which the two argue in sign language on their way to a dinner party, is a knockout, and it's an ingenious bit of staging to have Diane's inner voice narrated by a third party (Erica Evans). Tagavilla is perfectly cast as an insomniac businessman driven by something beyond greed, and the scenes of his slow, steady dis- integration are chillingly convincing. And Marr does a nice turn as an artist struggling to keep his own sanity in the face of madness and loss.

This is a heavy play. Beerman loads it chock-full of symbolic and thematic gestures—the varieties of blindness, the wages of addiction, real problems versus false problems, doing the right thing—and at times it seems too top-heavy for its own good: You wonder if the kitchen sink is going to fly across the stage. So it's all the more surprising that the play is largely successful, thanks in no small part to the entire crew's obvious depth of commitment. Miss America, subtitled "a fugue born in 1969," plays like one of American composer Charles Ives' teeming, cacophonous fanfares. Its narrative threads criss and cross and then pull into a tight knot as the whole piece crescendoes to a deafening climax, after which everything bursts apart, sending confetti everywhere. The spectacle is by turns fascinating and infuriating, but it's hard to take your eyes off it.

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