A woman, probably in her forties, is discovered in a remote cottage in the Northwest. She has never ventured from the door and speaks a curious language that appears to contain bits of Cherokee, Ozark dialect, Shakespearean English, plus words of her own devising, some of which approximate a coyote's howl. A strangely poetic creature -- her skin is "so pale you can see light through it" -- she represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the three scientists in "Idioglossia" who are observing her.
The new play by Mark Handley, which opened Wednesday at the New Playwrights' Theatre, is provocative in theory, but at this stage of its development it is unduly murky and largely underwritten. A lot of inchoate ideas predominate at the expense of the drama, which gets off to a sluggish start, then steadily slows down.
Nell (Karin Abromaitis), as the recluse is called, behaves at times like a whirling dervish or a Martha Graham dancer. She keeps a corpse in a box and eats mush out of a bowl. We're told she's blind, but she sees faces in the grain of a wooden plank and can pick up a Bible and "read" it perfectly.
A wild child she's not. She possesses a vision of things that sustains and delights her. "I have a lifetime of ideas in this room," she says, after she's begun to get a grip on English. In her presence, the scientists discover that all their notions of time, love, purpose and meaning turn to dust.
Thematically, "Idioglossia" brings Peter Shaffer's "Equus" to mind, although Handley is nowhere near so accomplished a dramatist. Still, the similarities are there. Three psychiatrists confronting what appears to be an "abnormal" being discover that their rational, "scientific" assumptions about humans are inoperative and, what's more, that their own lives are painfully hollow.
Jake (Mitchell Patrick) is most deeply affected. A burnout case professionally, he has also pulled away from TC (Mary Ellen Nester), with whom he has been romantically involved. Nonetheless, TC, who believes that everything in the universe can be explained if you feed enough data into a computer, gets Jake to help her with the investigation. There's also an older scientist, Claud (Lynn Schrichte), who is more open to the conundrums of human behavior, but the character is too sketchily drawn to count for much.
It is Jake, at any rate, who spends time in the cabin with Nell, while a video camera allows the other two to look on. Little by little, Jake pierces Nell's strange language, finds himself drawn to her rampant imagination and, eventually, falls in love with her. At one point, they recite passages from "Romeo and Juliet" to each other. But there's no persuading her to leave her enchanted domain and no possibility for him to retreat into it.
Nell talks a singsongy babble that is punctuated with the odd piece of slang or the glimmer of wisdom -- which may lead you to assume it is resonant with import. On the other hand, long patches of it simply register as gobbledygook. Among themselves, the scientists speak a soap opera vernacular and suffer from a heavy emotional baggage that Handley has failed to dramatize.
The performers, directed by Susan Einhorn in a glum set designed by Thomas F. Donahue, can't do much to reconcile the inner and outer worlds of "Idioglossia." There is much furrowing of brow and wringing of hands by the scientists. For her part, Nell chatters like an exotic bird and climbs the walls.
The impulse to climb the walls, I understood.
by Mark Handley. Directed by Susan Einhorn. Set, Thomas F. Donahue; lighting, Daniel MacLean Wagner; costumes, Jane Schloss Phelan. With Karin Abromaitis, Mitchell Patrick, Mary Ellen Nester, Lynn Schrichte. At the New Playwrights' Theatre through Dec. 6