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REVIEW: 'Fragments' smart, painful, fun all in one

“Fragments,” a character-driven drama about a dysfunctional family in 1976 Long Island, premiered Friday at Bellview Grange. It’s the inaugural production of Rogue Theater Company.

The playwright, Jessica Sage of Ashland, says the play showcases her own painful coming of age — and the courage, vision and pluck needed to climb out of that hellhole.

You tell yourself that Mom, Dad, Grandma and two late-teen girls probably are sane, decent people, but their family dynamic is crazy-making, as they sneeringly deride each other, occasionally exploding into savage fights.

The stage is set for a transformational arc. This can’t go on. Life is fragmented. It shouldn’t be this painful. It’s hard to watch, as it reminds many — so they say at an after-play champagne gala — of their own family of origin, and the fact it looked normal from the outside.

The mom/wife, Sheila (Annie Paul) smokes (water vaping) and downs shots of vodka, dresses like a hag and is stunningly convincing as the snarling, mad housewife. She’s the focus and, almost unconsciously, you start cheering for her to wake up and be the person she must have dreamed of being when she was her daughter’s age.

But how? Her husband, David (Danny Jokelson), is certainly no fount of caring and, in a nasty fight, it comes out they both mess around. Counterpointing this are the daughters, Rebecca, (Marie-Claire Erdynast), 17, and Amy (Madeleine Fichera), about 15, both perched on the edge of womanhood.

Rebecca, who represents playwright Sage, shouts the play’s main message to her mother: that moms and grandmothers (this was the dawn of the feminist revolution) didn’t have any choice but to marry and be mothers and let their husbands define them — but today’s women have choices and can dream different dreams.

Rebecca gushes her love of theater and adores her acting classes. Here sits a beautiful, smart leading lady — and the audience is practically swayed to tears thinking: please don’t end up like your mother. And what can toss a young lady into the pit her mother fell into? Sex and pregnancy. Becky sorta loves her boyfriend and wants to please him, but is he careful about sex? Does he respect her? Hardly. But (and here enters an issue still being fought out in society) to be free and have power over her own life, a woman must have reproductive choice.

It’s no small irony that the play premiered on International Women’s Day, and Planned Parenthood was tabling in the back of the room.

Becky shouts to her sister: “Don’t try to please your boyfriend! Don’t do anything you’re not ready to do!”

Shy, young Amy is the walking picture of uninformed innocence. These girls have to be saved! That goal imbues the play. But what is mom going to do? Can she be saved? Buckle up. That issue jumps to the fore, underlining the scary new freedoms of the ‘60s and ‘70s.

Director of this brilliant work is Liisa Ivary, a veteran of Oregon Shakespeare Festival, as are Annie Paul, Cil Stengel (Glenn) and Eileen DeSandre, who plays a savvy and wicked grandmother.

After the play, Ivary said the actors “stepped up and claimed it. We all identified with it. I sure had opportunities my mother and grandma didn’t have.”

Ivary added that the theater will do two productions a year. She lauded Sage for having “the amazing ability to get together actors we know and love and trust and are killer actors. She’s created a venue where women can be at the center of things.”

The production is smart, serious, fun, entertaining and a great opportunity to stir the pot and have your own catharsis. It would be a good movie, in the vein of the gritty, provocative, uber-truthful “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf,” which, ironically, is mentioned in the play.

Every play must have a revelation. For this, it seems to be that things may and usually do fall apart. It’s painful, but they can always, on a personal and cultural level, be put back together — and in better ways.

“Fragments” shows at 8 p.m. March 15 and 16, with matinees at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 10 and 17, at Bellview Grange. For information and tickets, see roguetheatercompany.com. Tickets are also available at Paddington Station and Music Coop.

John Darling is an Ashland freelance writer. Reach him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Courtesy photo