There is nothing predictable about the story line in “The Open Hand.” Written by Idaho playwright Rob Caisley, the play, which I saw Saturday, runs through May 14 on the Livia & Steve Russell Stage at Phoenix Theatre in Indianapolis.
Adeptly directed by I.U. Theatre faculty member Dale McFadden, and produced by Bryan Fonseca, the dark urban comedy, replete with clever repartee, is essentially a thoughtful contemplation on the nature of generosity. When one is given a gift, is reciprocity expected? What is the motivation behind the giving? In what spirit should one accept another’s generosity?
The play’s action which takes place over the course of several days centers on two young couples and David Nathan Bright (Charles Goad), an older, well to do mystery man. Allison (Leah Brenner) crosses paths with him in a restaurant when she is unable to pay the $80 check for lunch with her best friend Freya (Julie Mauro) because she has left her wallet at home. Bright, who then appears, is sympathetic to her embarrassing situation, so he not only picks up the check but also gifts Allison with his umbrella prior to walking out with her into a rain storm. This occurrence takes place a few days before a party that is to be held in her honor. It’s technically for her birthday, but Allison insists that that there be no mention of the actual reason for the celebration. If that isn’t odd enough, it is discovered that Allison never celebrates nor accepts gifts for her birthday and refuses to explain why?
Not in a position to reject her benefactor’s gift, Allison has no choice but to accept his largesse but it leaves her in a frustrating quandary. After fixating on paying Bright back she invites him to her non-birthday party. There he meets her aspiring chef husband Jack (Jay Hemphill) Freya and her personable husband Todd (Jeremy Fisher), a car salesman. What ensues is an an angry alcohol-fueled confrontation during which the couples, with the mysterious stranger looking on, spar, argue and share revelations.
What I admired the most about this Phoenix production were the convincing performances of the actors, all of whom excelled in their roles—Brenner as secretive, wounded Allison who struggles with pain from her past; Hemphill as talented and driven Jack who yearns for his own restaurant; Mauro as suspicious and combative Freya who is the least trustful of generosity; and Fisher as kindhearted Todd who is penalized for his selflessness.
Lastly, frequent Phoenix and IRT actor Goad, does his usual fine job, this time playing the Gatsby-like Bright whose intentions and motives are questioned by those who just can’t fathom why or how he could give so much without expecting anything in return.
Reflecting the show’s superb production values are Laura Glover’s lighting design, Emily McGhee’s costumes and props, Ben Dobler’s sound design and set designer Jeff Martin’s inventive revolving stage which features five different sets, representing the plays various locations.
Caisley’s interesting script provides for a few shocking surprises. Well into the first act I believed I was watching a pleasant, lighthearted comedy. However, as the second act, fraught with tension and upheaval, unfolded, I realized that things were a bit more complicated than I first perceived. Though there were a few things that stretched belief, I found this meditation on friendship, skepticism, trust and altruism, to be entertaining and unquestionably, stimulating. It’s just the kind of theatre the Phoenix likes to sink its teeth into. And no one in these parts does it better than they.
Tickets for “The Open Hand” are $27 per person on Thursdays, and Sundays, $33.00 per person on Fridays and Saturdays, and $20 for anyone 21 & under. Tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at (317)635-7529 or visiting phoenixtheatre.org. Curtain times for the production are: Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 p.m.