‘Morning, Miranda’ is disappointing, obvious follow-up from playwright Stephen Spotswood

The new play “Morning, Miranda” is so TV cute that our addled heroine, Miranda, shows up late to her mother’s funeral wearing a short red dress. The mother’s spirit haunts the girl, nagging her like something borrowed from “Blithe Spirit.” A drag performer dispenses wise advice.

You’ll spot the obvious route this is taking (road trip! closure!) way before poor Miranda has a clue. Helen, Miranda’s mother, wanted her ashes scattered way out west in San Francisco; the old car Miranda borrows from the drag chanteuse Auntie Jack — a very old friend of Helen’s — has a stash of ancient postcards from someone named Randy.

It takes a long time for our Miranda to connect the dots.

Local playwright Stephen Spotswood has emerged lately with the well-received “In the Forest She Grew Fangs” and “We Tiresias,” but “Morning” careens unevenly through Miranda’s grief. It isn’t helped by a Doorway Arts Ensemble production (at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda) that can’t find the accelerator.

Chalk this one up to a writer taking some notions out for a spin. The banter at the funeral is forced, and a scene in the seedy nightclub where Miranda plays piano goes on too long and never rings true. (Miranda’s a 30-ish lesbian at eternal odds with her mother.)


Sarah Holt (left) and K. Clare Johnson (right) in Doorway Arts Ensemble’s production, “Morning, Miranda.” (Stephen Spotswood/Stephen Spotswood)

Spotswood seems more interested in the exotic locales to come: a dive bar where the spectral Helen accidentally inhabits a couple of live bodies, including one belonging to a waitress Miranda is kissing, and a river where circus performers occupy a memory-free limbo world. That’s a lot of antic atmosphere to deliver the simple lesson Miranda has coming whenever the teasing script stops withholding critical information from her.

Does Spotswood mean to make you think of more substantial dramas such as “The Baltimore Waltz,” “Stop Kiss,” or “Prelude to a Kiss”? Hard to tell, but the whispers are there. (Oddly, the play also sounds like a quirky cousin to Ann Randolph’s solo grieving-daughter comedy “Loveland,” now at Arena Stage.)

It’s also hard to know how differently this might go down in a show that was more efficient or evocative. But in director Matt Ripa’s staging, the car is suggested by two homely chairs and a steering wheel, the transitions take forever and the actors have trouble animating the stage.

That’s not to say that Sarah Holt is lost as Helen — in fact, she’s agreeably woolly — or that K. Clare Johnson’s fetching frustration as Miranda is off the mark. But they’re in a vehicle that misfires a lot.

Morning, Miranda

By Stephen Spotswood. Directed by Matthew Ripa. About two hours. Set and lights, Chris Holland; costumes, Jesse Shipley; sound design, Mehdi Raoufi; choreography, Jennie Lutz. With Adam R. Adkins, David Dubov, Ally Jenkins, Jon Jon Johnson, Rachel Manteuffel, and Richard Owen. Through April 12 at the Writer’s Center, 4508 Walsh Street, Bethesda. Tickets $20. Visit www.doorwayarts.org.

First Post byline, 1992; covering theater for the Post since 1999. His book "American Playwriting and the Anti-Political Prejudice" will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2014.
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