Story: Martin leads a structured existence. He is an architect who designs award-winning structures. He speaks impeccable English and is quick to point out the grammatical errors of others. He lives in a clean, sterile house with his refined wife Stevie and his slightly uptight teen-age son, Billy, who has told his parents that he is gay.
Everything in Martin’s world, though, quickly unravels when he reveals to his “longest-time” friend Ross that he has fallen in love with Sylvia. Martin assures Ross that he has never been unfaithful to Stevie in all their years of marriage until now. Ross is somewhat sympathetic, until Martin shows him a photo of Sylvia. At first Ross laughs and then he is horrified when Martin confirms that the goat Ross sees in the photo is indeed Sylvia.
Ross warns Martin to get therapy as soon as possible, and also to inform Stevie of this development. He assures Martin that if he does not do so, there may be consequences. Martin says nothing, and indeed there are serious consequences aplenty that develop for his entire family.
Highlights: Edward Albee has lunged head-on into taboo and controversial subjects for half a century. He’s won numerous Pulitzer Prizes and was denied another after the Pulitzer Committee over-ruled its Pulitzer drama panel and rescinded the panel’s award for Albee’s ground-breaking drama, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Albee’s works are powerful, insightful and incendiary, all of which apply to his take on bestiality and mental illness, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?, which won the 2002 Tony Award for Best Play. Obviously, such an unsympathetic subject requires meticulous attention by a director and cast, something which Wayne Salomon and his players provide in an arresting and compelling production at St. Louis Actors’ Studio that will have you squirming with discomfort while simultaneously transfixed by the players’ performances.
Other Info: The trick with this quirky, one-act descent into madness is the calibration of the performers’ interpretation of their roles. Here Salomon shows firm command of the situation, carefully drawing out remarkable studies of the quartet of characters in a presentation that evokes fits of laughter which interrupt a slow and disgusting realization and horror about the focal subject.
John Pierson masterfully conveys Martin’s complexity. While the character is never sympathetic, Pierson plies his craft soundly to etch a character who aches with passion and pain, who seemingly can’t help himself. Albee shrewdly alludes to Martin’s misguided sexual tendencies in a revelatory speech by Martin near the work’s conclusion, when again Pierson is able to speak the words with clarity and a profound naivete. All of this is vital if the production is to succeed.
Nancy Bell is astounding and demanding as Stevie. She utilizes her considerable artistic range in shaping Stevie’s wounded psyche, first with glib and caustic rejoinders and then erupting with bursts of violence that lay waste to Patrick Huber’s anti-septic set, a cold combination of black and white that permeates the couple’s modern living room. Watching Bell’s expressions is one of the rewards of this presentation.
William Roth does a fine job walking the middle road as Martin’s best friend, Ross, a comrade who can share an easy laugh but then gradually becomes repulsed at Martin’s shocking admissions as well as his unwillingness to change. Scott Anthony Joy completes the quartet as the profoundly affected Billy, whose love for his parents is irreparably challenged by the hellish circumstances that destroy his idyllic existence in one brief afternoon.
Lisa Beke’s props literally take a beating in the course of the presentation, and Huber’s lighting remains stark and naked throughout. Robin Weatherall’s sound design is suitably shrill and fractious, while Teresa Doggett’s costumes superbly reflect the outward appearances of the four characters, notably Stevie’s sleek outfits and Martin’s preppie togs.
There are problems that need to be addressed. Roth could bring a stronger conviction to the delivery of his lines, which sometimes are cast off too quickly, and Joy at times seems uncertain about how to react to a situation. Additionally, Bell’s tantrums come across initially as calculated and methodical rather than spontaneous.
Despite such shortcomings, the St. Louis Actors’ Studio’s production of The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia? offers a valuable lesson in the art of theater for anyone who can stomach the play’s nauseating premise. That’s something Albee himself would appreciate.
Play: The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?
Group: St. Louis Actors’ Studio
Venue: Gaslight Theater, 358 North Boyle
Dates: January 24, 25, 26, 27, 31, February 1, 2, 3
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb