In Arts & Entertainment Reviews

Peter Reeves and Sara Zientek star in "Slowgirl" at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. (PHOTO: Paul Ruffolo)

Chamber's "Slowgirl" is a gentle look at two strangers bound by blood and love

It starts with a whisper and ends with wonder, and in between, two souls – lost in their own private jungles – struggle for truth and a common ground upon which each can walk with comfort.

That's the story of "Slowgirl," the play by Greg Pierce that opened over the weekend at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.

The whisper is 17-year-old Becky (Sara Zientek), weary of her heavy backpack, trying to gently wake her uncle Sterling (Peter Reeves) whom she hasn't seen in eight years., He is slumbering in a hammock, a book on his chest, and Becky is wary of this new place.

The place is Costa Rica, where Sterling lives alone in a jungle shanty, complete with iguanas, coral snakes, parrots and doors that are removed during the dry season.

The play is a gentle journey of two individuals struggling over a thorny emotional landscape prodded and played with the soft sounds of brushes on a snare drum. This is not a play for shouting. It is a night for modest demand, and it sails blithely along under the watchful and patient eye of director C. Michael Wright.

The play carves no new ground – generational drama abounds – but the study of these two distinctly different people as they search for a common ground is a delight.

Becky has been sent to Costa Rica by her parents – her mother is Sterling's brother – because of an unexplained incident that has resulted from her suspension from school. The incident involved a learning disabled girl named Marybeth who had the nickname "Slowgirl."

Perhaps the only dim spot of this play is the curiosity over why her family, who live in Massachusetts, would send her off on a nine-hour flight to stay for awhile with an uncle she barely remembers. That question is never answered, but in just a short time, it doesn't matter.

Sterling has retreated to his jungle home after a bad marriage, a bad law partnership and a life filled with the kind of turmoil that badgered this mild soul. For Sterling, silence is indeed golden, and he has found comfort and peace in his hideaway.

Enter Becky who is everything you might think a 17-year-old girl is.

She has no filter, talking about her sexual experiences, her desire for some booze and her hope that she and her uncle can smoke some weed together. She is like a typhoon dropped suddenly in a quiet inlet on a placid shore.

For Sterling, Becky's arrival is a shock. He doesn't know why she has come, and he doesn't know what to do with her now that she's here. Becky, of course, is the self-confident little miss who doesn't need or want anyone to do anything with her. She's just fine the way she is.

But of course, she is not fine. She, like so many of us, has her secrets, slowly revealed in bits and pieces under the quiet receptiveness of her uncle.

While it is the big Becky secret that lays itself out at the beginning, it isn't long before she asks Sterling about his secrets, his flight from a world that treated him with both indifference and cruelty.

Pierce lets the characters in his play do the talking. He isn't trying to make any big point here except for the fact that for 90 minutes it's engrossing to watch these two people, almost from different planets, find an orbit where both can be comfortable.

Reeves, who is moving to Pennsylvania after this performance, has been a veteran presence in Milwaukee for years. He is leaving with a bang as he finds in Sterling in the halting world of a quiet man suddenly besieged with the cacaphony of a teenage girl.

He has a way of letting us see the man he used to be, the man he is and the man he wants to be. His performance with Zientek is dashing.

Zientek, who has been one of my absolute favorites for a number of years, turns her Becky into a funny and brash and surprisingly brave girl. Words tumble out of her mouth with nary a thought to what they might mean or what they might do to someone else. Becky has a driving need to fill the air with the sound of her own voice, and she drips with humor and balderdash that provides plenty of laughs.

But the darker layers in the real lives of both Sterling and Becky slowly peel away and expose the rawness that lurks just beneath the surface.

Zientek's monologues at the end of the play are the work of a powerful and brave actor. She has no fears to the baring of both her soul and her demons and she finds her island in her uncle. The answers found by each character proves that there is always a place of wonder for the members of a family.

"Slowgirl" runs through March 20. Information on showtimes and tickets is available here.

Production Credits; Director, C. Michael Wright; Production Stage Manager, Judy Martel; Scenic Designer, Keith Pitts; Costume Designer, Kimberly O'Callaghan; Lighting Designer, Charles Cooper; Sound Designer, Jeff Russell; Production Manager, Brandy Kline; Properties Master, Melissa Centgraf.

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