To an average theatergoer there is perhaps no greater satisfaction than witnessing a production captivating enough to sustain belief in the fictitious reality, ignoring the surface fabrications in favor of an underlying truth. Achieving such an entranced condition is a formidable proposition for any production, much less one that relies upon the skills of a single performer. Undaunted by the challenge, The Edge of Our Bodies, now running at the Guthrie Theater’s Dowling Studio, fearlessly accomplishes this exalted task through an absolutely mesmerizing performance by Twin Cities native Ali Rose Dachis.
With The Edge of Our Bodies, playwright Adam Rapp, best known as the author of exceptionally insightful young adult novels, channels his intuitive sensibilities into the story of Bernadette, a 16-year-old-girl facing a precarious crossroads. Alone on stage, Bernadette recounts a supposedly autobiographical account of sneaking away from her Connecticut prep school for a train journey to New York City. The purpose of her surreptitious trip? To break the news of her unplanned pregnancy to her boyfriend, Michael. Along the way, however, Bernadette’s story begins to grow increasingly preoccupied with her en route encounters. Such an impression is reinforced by Bernadette’s arrival at Michael’s home, wherein her absent boyfriend’s cancer-stricken father imparts an enigmatic bit of wisdom that will set Bernadette on a distressingly fraught course of action.
Rapp imbues the narrative with a novelist’s propensity for detail. Every instant of Bernadette’s journey is recollected with vivid (and often risible) observations of the people and places that cross her path. In using Bernadette’s voice, however, Rapp finds a shrewd means to comment on her character. Bernadette, it must be remembered, is an aspiring writer performing an original work. Taken in context, it isn’t unlikely that Bernadette would employ dramatic license. In fact, given Bernadette’s tendency to quote from playwright Jean Genet’s The Maids (a play that centers on malleable personas) it’s all but certain she is tailoring her response to how she wishes to be perceived by an unseen audience.
Such layering of Bernadette’s character demonstrates Rapp’s keen perception into adolescence. Bernadette’s unfazed posturing, both on the page and in performance, belies the insecurity of youth. But while Rapp inscribes this essential character facet into the script, it requires the communication of an exceptional performer, one who recognizes that Bernadette’s true personality is revealed more by how she speaks than in what she actually says. In the process of demonstrating this point, Ali Rose Dachis provides a revelatory portrayal.
Guided by the assured direction of Benjamin McGovern, Dachis exemplifies understated nuance. Initiating the tale with refined composure, Dachis introduces Bernadette reciting her narrative with practiced precision. As the story spins faster, however, Dachis allows anxiety to permeate her poised resolve. Ruled by conflicting impulses, Dachis deftly transforms Bernadette’s exhausted introspection into an escapist desperation severe enough to verge on self-destruction.
Matching the script’s subtext, Michael Hoover’s striking set design draws upon myriad layers of interpretation. At first glance the well-appointed stage appears to depict an affluent suburban residence. A crystal chandelier hangs overhead, reflecting light over silver serving trays and an antique radio. Only as the story develops is the artificiality of the setting made unmistakable.
Setting the prevailing mood, lighting designer Ryan Connealy allows for subtly rendered, but utterly essential transitions to heighten the play’s reflective shifts. From the warm sanctuary of a childhood home to the seedy environs of a West Village dive bar, Connealy inextricably ushers in each narrative twist, ending the play with a visual coda of captivating grace.
For all their ubiquity, it’s difficult to find a coming of age tale that resonates with authenticity. Most are saccharine or mawkish, and few honesty reflect the contradictory longings of youth. By contrast, The Edge of Our Bodies places the reckless desire for adulthood against the fallacious security of childhood, evoking the painful inevitability of exchanging skin-deep innocence for soul stirring experience.
The Edge of Our Bodies runs at the Guthrie Theater through November 20th.