It is one thing when characters in a play are evasive. That's human nature. We all have secrets we'd just as soon keep to ourselves, pain we'd rather not share, embarrassments that are ours alone.
But when a playwright starts getting evasive, it's usually a sign of trouble.
Take "Ladies' Side," the new work at Source Theatre's Warehouse Rep through June 2. What Alex Finlayson is trying to dramatize, I suspect, is a subtle and dangerous game of emotional hide-and-seek, as played by a cluster of wealthy Texas women. It is 1959 and the women -- two with grandchildren in tow -- have gathered in that half of a posh fishing camp reserved exclusively for their sex, while their husbands indulge in sport and merriment in the other half.
Something is amiss, however. There's an empty boat out on the lake, although whose boat it is and what happened to its occupant, if indeed, anything, is very slow to come to light. Finlayson is more interested, you see, in the way her characters -- in particular, the imperious Lisbeth (Columba Hoban) and her sorry sister Lilly (Robin Deck) -- manage to keep the mystery to themselves. They gossip, do their nails, play bridge. They order up drinks from a philosophical bartender (Cliff McMullin). But whenever the conversation begins to touch on the real matter at hand -- or one of the grandchildren proves too inquisitive -- a veil descends over the proceedings and the subject is conveniently changed.
All this would be legitimate if Finlayson weren't also engaged in as many subterfuges and delaying tactics as her characters. She postpones simple facts, obscures biographical details and alludes constantly to the momentousness of events she then steadfastly refuses to reveal. It will take you much of the first act simply to sort out the relationships among these women, let alone intuit what is buried in their pampered souls. It takes another act, 21 years later, before the mystery of the empty boat is even addressed. About all you will gather is that Lizbeth's husband, deeply estranged from his wife, went out for a row and shot himself in the face and Lizbeth did nothing to stop him.
Apparently, the heavy hand of fate figures in all this. There is a lot of opaque talk about faithless men, relationships and women's "capacity to forgive," which is decidedly greater, we are told, than women's "ability" to forgive. At any rate, Lisbeth's rebellious granddaughter (Mary Kay Wulf) can't shake the family sin, whatever it is, and at the play's end is about to send her husband packing on a suicide course.
While Finlayson has an ear for the well-bred bitchiness that characterizes these women, she invariably falsifies the tone by larding down the dialogue with gobs of hidden meaning. Even the bids at the bridge table -- "a run on hearts this evening," observes Lisbeth knowingly -- are pregnant with symbolism. The production, directed by Genie Barton and Margaret Hahn, does nothing to bring this maddening flux into focus. In fact, the Source actresses seem to have been pushed into the vague and murky deep, when their only hope for dramatic salvation would be to cling to the play's realistic surface.
It doesn't help that autocratic Lisbeth, who is both the key to the play's mysteries and its driving force, is played by Hoban as a high-camp version of Katharine Hepburn. But then, until Finlayson decides to lay a few more cards on the table, not much will help "Ladies' Side."