The A. R. T. /New York Theater
January 18, 2018
It’s September 1987 in a modest home somewhere. Press information says that “Gloria opens her door to the woman she hasn’t seen since she disappeared from home ten years ago. Mary sees the face that has haunted her memories of childhood and dreams of womanhood.” In the performance I saw, Mary called Gloria by different names and the early relationship between them was never clarified. That’s not all that was confusing in Sheila that began with a fifteen-minute scene in which “Gloria” moved around the set in very dim light (I thought perhaps the table lamp had malfunctioned) and did nothing other than painstakingly open an orange juice carton. This segment was so slow and pointless it was like watching a theater class exercise in sustaining a moment.
Sheila is confusing and director Jamal Abdunnasir hasn’t helped clarify the work. Mary, played by Peregrine Teno Heard, often speaks so softly she’s hard—make that impossible—to understand. (My companion felt the same.) At one point Mary and Gloria sit on the floor, each facing one side of the audience (the theater is configured with a left and right side.) This leaves each with her back to one side so both voices are muffled. Perhaps it would have been better had they sat parallel? Mary, Lauren Larocca, is a classic example of “let’s pretend”—to be anguished or confused. No emotion was genuinely moving.
And there’s Sheila, the title figure. Who she is was never made clear. And who does the “older” woman, her head wrapped in a stocking, who runs through the set once bursting from the refrigerator, represent? Mary’s mother? A ghost? Someone who wandered in from another play?
The net effect of what seems deliberate confusion is just that—a jumble of ideas about motherhood, love, responsibility and other ideas that don’t add up to a satisfying production. I think the work means to touch on the idea of accepting responsibility or abandoning it. However, ideas are never fully developed and some that are explained are revealed so late in the work I lost interest.
Sheila was devised by The Associates, a theater ensemble that devises plays through “a collective process of confession, confrontation, and dissent within the company.” The group says it created Sheila to venture deep into the paradoxes of women’s lives which doesn’t correspond to the half-formed, amorphous play.
A.R.T./New York is a project of the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York, which provide state-of-the-art, accessible venues at subsidized rental rates, plus free access to top-line technical equipment, so that the city’s small and emerging theatre companies can continue to experiment, grow, and produce new works. Founded in 1972, A.R.T./New York is the leading service and advocacy organization for New York City’s 375+ nonprofit theaters, with a mission to assist member theaters in managing their companies effectively, so that they may realize their rich artistic visions and serve their diverse audiences well. A for A.R.T’s mission; F for Sheila.