7th Monarch is first rate: fresh, riveting, and meticulously constructed. The theater fades. Time passes with such concentrated energy, intermission is a surprise. Protagonists are compelling and sympathetic. An excellent production contains one of the breakout performances of the year. Ignore that if you can!
1991. Miriam Hemmerick (Gretchen Hall) is a 33 year old genius with a razor sharp, mathematically bent mind, a photographic memory, and childlike functionality. The manic, young woman lives alone in her parents’ suburban, Indiana house studying insects and hiding from “The Chosen One.” She avidly collects newspapers (think the Collier Brothers) with particular interest in NASA. Any of the papers can be mentally accessed and quoted verbatim. Miriam subsists on pot pies, mud pies (the cake), and Tang (the instant orange juice drink.) There is nothing the least bit whimsical in this characterization, but neither is it heavy.
Raina Briar (Leslie Hendrix), a criminal investigator from the Social Security office, arrives to inquire about the change of endorsement on the senior Hemmerick’s checks from their names to: Beep Beep Baby. Miriam readily admits she’s been signing—with a nickname earned having been born the day Sputnik went up—since her parents rode away on a comet “…but I wasn’t tethered, so I floated down to earth.” Suspicious and spooked (mirrors are covered with clippings and she accidently finds a knife and blood soaked rag), the frosty Raina decides to beat a hasty retreat and press fraud charges. Instead, something goes awry, Miriam collapses to the floor in a fit and the agent takes a first step towards becoming enmeshed.
Three men provide credible context for the women’s unlikely, evolving relationship: County Prosecutor Kenneth Sharpe (Michael Rupert) jumps at convicting Miriam of her parents’ murder in order to get re-elected. Career Detective Leo Garnes (Michael Cullen) plays by the book, but kindly. Public Defender Grey Collins (Matthew Humphries), works instinctively, slightly outside the box.
Two predictions: By the time multiple tragedies are revealed, you’ll find yourself caring deeply. You’ll neither guess nor regret the outcome.
Playwright Jim Henry imbues his rigorously off the wall heroine with profound authenticity. Fascinating behavioral and historical specifics abound. Equally as persuasive, the slow reveal of Raina’s truth is managed with such restraint, its effect is all the more powerful. Two character scenes—a crossword puzzles competition between Miriam and Garnes is one of many—show particular finesse. Unexpected dividends of humor offer relief. The young defense lawyer might’ve been more fleshed out so as not to seem as if he were merely holding a place.
Gretchen Hall (Miriam Hemmerick) is a revelation. The actress sustains a physically as well as emotionally load-bearing role with complete focus, creating as sharply etched a character as I’ve seen. Hall gives us a multidimensional woman whose very life represents emotional carnage, yet does so with both dignity and delicacy. Combustive reactions and private calculations are both palpable. Fear is visceral. Innocence is lucid. Exposure is raw.
An indelible performance.
Leslie Hendrix (Raina Blair) so masterfully embodies her character, each small clue presents itself without telegraphing the next; we make the journey with her. Hendrix’s sharp, tightly wound investigator is believable, signs of penetration to her crust nuanced, each ripple-effect response seemingly as jarring to Raina as the audience. An actress with clear intelligence and gutsy control.
Leo Garnes (Michael Cullen) offers a quietly muscular performance as the straight-from-the hip detective. Sensitivity never expresses itself beyond the backstory of his character. Sincerity reads as unquestionable. Michael Ruppert (Kenneth Sharpe) and Matthew Humphreys (Grey Collins) both do admirable, affectation-free jobs working with less.
Direction by Scott C. Embler is effective. Imaginative realization of Miriam is galvanizing. Characters are naturalistic, scenes well composed and deftly paced. Staging is inspired: The use of doors opening out from the long flowered wall of Miriam’s house, each becoming background to a temporary vignette, offers optimum continuity without ever letting us forget the chronicle’s roots. Use of props is clever and telling.
Scenic Designer Shoko Kambara has tweaked his mid-western house to sufficiently support Henry’s pithy story. Less emphatic wallpaper would’ve radically changed the mood. Minimal furniture is pitch perfect. Inventive, fitting décor on top of three walls is a hoot. David Withrow’s Costumes exhibit fine awareness of each character. His choices for Miriam are especially representative.
Photo Credit: Carol Rosegg
#1: L to R: Gretchen Hall as Miriam Hemmerick and Leslie Hendrix as Raina Briar
#2: – L to R: Michael Rupert, Michael Cullen, Gretchen Hall and Matthew Humphreys
#3 L to R: Leslie Hendrix as Raina Briar and Michael Rubert as Kenneth Sharpe
Somerled Charitable Foundation presents
7th Monarch by Jim Henry
Directed by Scott C. Embler
The Acorn Theater
410 West 42nd Street (West of 9th Avenue)