Carson McCuller's Only Play, 'The Square Root of Wonderful,' Revived at Raven Playhouse
Carson McCullers' dark family drama The Square Root of Wonderful, is playing at Raven Playhouse in North Hollywood. In this Collaborative Artists Ensemble revival, a quirky Southern family is plagued by mental illness, infidelity and violence born out of naïveté. Overall, this production of The Square Root of Wonderful is watchable and offers some truly superb performances, but it falls short of reaching its full potential through some distracting theatrical mis-steps by its lead actor.
The Square Root of Wonderful is the only stage play that McCullers wrote. The Southern-Gothic writer considered the work deeply personal as it blatantly reflects the tragic relationship between herself and her husband, Reeves McCullers. The production portrays a brewing love triangle and a disturbed Southern family living in a New York suburb. Central character Mollie Lovejoy is emotionally torn between two men. She must choose between reuniting with her unstable literary-genius ex-husband and the father of her child; marrying a blasé but perfectly nice lodger that she has fallen in love with; or simply and bravely going it alone with her son. The work is full of sexual overtones, disturbed behavior, and bad parenting that were probably considered scandalous when the work debuted in 1957—but by modern standards, such themes fall way to an awareness of overt domestic violence and an unusually weak-willed female role that is increasingly uncommon in contemporary narratives.
The cast of The Square Root of Wonderful gives performances that vary widely in quality. Meg Wallace leads the cast as Mollie, but does not seem well suited to the task. Wallace lends an unconvincing and unbelievable Southern accent to Mollie that channels energy away from where her talents really belong—injecting passion, longing, and uncertainty into her character to craft a believable human portrait. This performance paradigm constitutes a major production flaw.
The supporting cast, on the other hand, gives fantastic performances. John Holloway is stellar as Phillip Lovejoy, Mollie's violent and crazy husband with a chip on his shoulder that prevents him reclaiming his lost literary voice. Full of disturbed rapture, chilling angst and complex intensity, Holloway drives the production and keeps the audience on their toes and never sure what to expect from his mysterious characterization. As Mother Lovejoy, Helen Wilson charmingly purrs her way through dialog, offering up a refined comedic timing. Pamela Wylie perfectly plays Loreena "Sister" Lovejoy with a sharp sense of restrained anticipation and concentrated empathy. In the role of Mollie's burgeoning love-interest and lodger John Tucker, Randal Miles has the unfortunate task of conveying some terribly cheesy dialog that surely must look fluidly poetic on paper, but sounds downright awkward when spoken. Miles overcomes this quite well by firmly projecting Tucker's stronger, more tangible sensibilities whenever possible. Sean Eaton fills the role of the Lovejoy's son, Paris. Eaton is quite young and is still getting his theatrical feet wet, but he delivers his most crucial lines with a mature sense of realistic human reaction.
Director Steve Jarrard smartly presents The Square Root of Wonderful in its original context. Now a 1950s period piece, the work gives the audience a good appreciation-inspiring look at how much social life and status has changed for women in the last five decades. Jarrard's direction is communicative and flows well, but one wishes that he would have used his obviously-available talent to intervene and improve the role of Mollie.
The Square Root of Wonderful is playing at the Raven Playhouse through May 27. Tickets are $10 to $20 and available online or via phone at 323-860-6569.