The title of Craig Wright's Orange Flower Water is a very pretty lie. It promises a sweet, even lyrical, evening of theater. But the playwright's 90-minute one-act, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, is anything but pretty. This dark drama about the brutal whipping adultery inflicts on the human heart is powerful, honest, hypnotic, even haunting -- but it's not pretty.
The play opens on the happily married Cathy Calhoun (Anne Quackenbush). She stands primly upstage in a soft pool of shadowy light, letting us know how much she loves her husband and children. There's a gentle, grown-up tenderness in her warm declaration of constancy. This tenderness -- made even more poignant by Quackenbush's intelligent, soft-eyed delivery -- makes the dreadful irony of her words all the more difficult to bear when, in the next scene, we watch the husband she adores climb into bed with another woman.
It turns out that David Calhoun (Timothy Eric Dickson) has been in love with the other woman, Beth Youngquist (Shelley Calene-Black), for a long time. But David and Beth have never consummated their love. Both are married, both have children, and both long for each other in the hungry way of teenagers. But they know about the consequences of adultery and have managed to limit their contact to stolen kisses at parties. When David convinces Beth to meet him at a hotel, she does so reluctantly. And during their encounter it becomes clear that Beth, more than David, feels the rip in her heart when she reaches across the bed for her lover.
Orange Flower Water
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123.
Through March 27. $25-$35.
The bed, sprawled across center stage like a battlefield, becomes the central image of Wright's domestic war story. In a later scene, the bed stands between Beth and her husband Brad (Josh Morrison), and they circle around it, interrogating each other, hurling invectives and lacerating each other with damning insults. "Every time you touch me it's like being raped," she spits in his face. The muscular Morrison is especially powerful as Beth's wounded husband. Like an animal he paces around the bed, howling out his broken heart in a rage of profanity.
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Cathy and David also go at each other in the boudoir. But they don't just stalk around the bed, they lie down on it. Sex becomes a sort of ugly wrestling match of wills: Cathy climbs on top and tries to force her husband to love her, while David works just as hard to resist. The awful accuracy and intimacy of this scene make it both deeply disturbing and painfully moving. Quackenbush's finely-boned face carries in it a melancholy map of aching loneliness, the sort of deep-down hurt in the gut that makes us do things we shamefully regret for decades.
The powerful cast captures the everyday ordinariness of these characters. They shop for groceries. Their kids play soccer. They go to church. It is their commonness that makes this story so frightening. Quackenbush, Morrison and Dickson all find a suburban banality somewhere in their artful souls, making these characters seem like neighbors, co-workers, even you. Only the ever-erotic Calene-Black, who looks at the world with a wary tilt to her street-smart chin, seems miscast here. She is lovely, interesting, charismatic -- anything but ordinary.
Set designer Kirk Markley's looming backdrop of to-the-rafters metro shelving captures the banality of this world. Stacked along the metal shelves are toilet paper, a pair of shoes, a teapot, towels -- the stuff of dull daily life. These details bring the story home. They make it real, almost too real for comfort.
Under Rob Bundy's measured direction, Orange Flower Water becomes a long, sharp blade aimed straight for the chest. It slides in between the ribs and moves slowly and surely down to the heart beating inside. Thankfully, the play ends with the sweetest and most slender thread of hope. But it's not enough to undo the damage. Wright's story will spook anyone who's contemplated adultery and cast a long shadow over those already in possession of a broken heart.