It's Possible to Love Your Source Material Too Much

See Book-It's Rhoda: A Life in Stories for details.

Sometimes, admiration becomes overindulgence. Take, for instance, Book-It's current production of Rhoda: A Life in Stories, a play inspired by the short fiction of Ellen Gilchrist. Adapted by playwright Rachel Atkins, who is obviously gaga over Gilchrist's work, Rhoda strings together several stories, recounting the trials and tribulations, loves and losses of the independent, combative Rhoda from childhood to middle age. The themes are as dog-eared as they are archetypal—loneliness, alienation, sex, drugs, recovery, self-actualization—strung like so many beads on the prototypical coming-of-age story. None of this would be objectionable (German novelist Herman Hesse successfully milked that spiritual formula for all it was worth) were it not for the overweening sentimentality that blankets the whole play with uncritical warm fuzzies. The result is a complete lack of risk. Taken individually, each episode does show a certain pop and pluck. Taken all together, however—and running at almost three hours—Rhoda proves all too fond of itself, overly cute, and too neatly resolved.

As played by Book-It co-founder Jane Jones, Rhoda is a bundle of unbounded energy and spirit, a restless, defiant soul ever searching for her proper place in the world. She is the sole daughter in a family full of sons, and her ruggedly handsome father is a powerful, charismatic, sometimes overbearing figure of authority. From this psycho-familial configuration springs the maw of Rhoda's endless appetites—for acceptance, for self-determination, for men. But Atkins fails to dig below the surface of this drama; her adaptation is at once too rapidly paced and too thinly spread, a shallow oil slick of sitcom concerns. Although it's obvious she has a feel—or, rather, feelings—for Gilchrist's characters, she rarely digs beneath their exteriors. Every once in a while the play does show just the hint of a sharper comic edge, especially in Rhoda's unsentimental talk about sex. On the whole, however, Rhoda seems determined to paint its picket fences white.

It's a shame to see so much heart and obvious good intentions go awry. Most disappointing is watching the talented, capable cast swim in marshmallow. One can only imagine what strong actors like Troy Fischnaller, Tracy Repep, and Kelly Kitchens might have done with a drama that worked a bit harder to earn the respect—rather than the adoration—of its inspiring author. As it is, Rhoda plays something like a fan's notes, a Capra-esque frolic through the flowering fields of caricature, all lightness and song. Such sentimental journeys, while necessary, are best kept to one's self.

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