Harper Regan

Harper Regan

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo

By Philip Pearce

HARPER REGAN, which opened at the Jewel Theatre Company, Santa Cruz, last weekend, is a tough slice of contemporary British life.

Forty-one-year-old Harper, working mum of a family recently transplanted to a West London suburb from 200 or so miles north in Manchester, walks out one afternoon on her unemployed husband and her fractious daughter without warning or explanation.

She heads back home to Manchester to a dying father she’s never told how she loves and values. Her quirky odyssey turns out to be an exploration of the secrets families keep from the neighbors, building walls of silence around and between themselves. But if you left the theater after Act I, you’d never know that is what’s happening. Early in her journey, she encounters some quirky characters and sloughs off her suburban niceness with explosions of petty theft and violence. But the surprise discoveries and dark secrets that are the real stuff of the play emerge only in the provocative if somewhat over-long second act.

I felt annoyed at first. But on reflection, I decided I liked looking back at Act I events and relationships which seemed random and unplanned at the time, but take on a whole new coloring when the last half of the play points to some questions that should have been asked. Simon Stephens’ script doesn’t even sign-post these potential secrets as would any well-made “problem play.” We didn’t stop to wonder why this North Country family moved 200 miles south in the first place. Or why, for instance, this screwed up but resourceful housewife waffles, gossips and needlessly extends a chance encounter with a teen-aged boy she has just met on a bridge.

In the role of Harper, Jewel artistic director Julie James is particularly effective in the moments of stifled emotion such as her frustrating and puzzled efforts to persuade her stupid boss (the maddeningly focused Chad Davis) to give her time off to visit her father. Maybe because she is physically slight, she is less convincing when the action brings out the woman’s unexpected depths of earthy toughness.

As her daughter Sarah, Marissa Keltie offers a wonderful blend of exuberant academic smarts as she rattles off detailed facts about the definition and development of glaciers which won applause from the opening night audience. I wondered in passing whether she wasn’t too pleasantly costumed and coiffed for a girl who is repeatedly described as “goth” in style, but why quibble?

The role of Harper’s husband Seth is a tough assignment. Stephen Muterspaugh does well by it, but it’s hard to think he’s much more than a troubled if helpful wimp.

I liked Nat Robinson as the teen-aged bike enthusiast on the bridge and Karel K. Wright as the mother Harper hasn’t seen or spoken to for two years. And there is a nice cameo of quiet decency from Taras Wybaczynsky Jr. that shines a bit of light onto an otherwise fraught encounter between Harper, her mother and her mother’s second husband.

The company faces the challenge of the tricky dialect of England’s north country. Having spent about seven years of my working life in the region, I can say that, with some fits and starts, they make a commendable effort. They are directed by the London-trained Audrey Rumsby, who also plays a very convincing north country, church-going grief counselor named Justine Ross.

The evening leaves us with the commendable if unsurprising message that truth helps and forgiveness helps even more. What makes it worth watching is Stephens’ refusal, in telling it, to press familiar theatrical buttons or follow predictable character stereotypes.