Three-and-a-half years ago, “The Fall to Earth” made its New York regional premiere at Stony Point’s Penguin Rep. It ended with a cliff-hanger, one so far out of left field that it had people questioning what they had just seen.
That production, like the one running for just one more weekend at 59E59 Theaters in Manhattan, was written by Chicago’s Joel Drake Johnson and directed by Joe Brancato, Penguin’s artistic director. Then, as now, it’s the story of a mother and daughter who come to a small town to see to the details after a death in the family. A local police officer, a woman, befriends them.
But this “Fall to Earth” is not that “Fall to Earth.” Brancato and Johnson have distilled it, refined it, and — thankfully — dropped the silly ending.
In Stony Point, Tony-winner Michele Pawk played Fay, the mother.
Brancato has taken the play in an entirely different direction with the casting of Deborah Hedwall, an Obie Award-winner for “Sight Unseen” at MTC. Where Pawk was largely measured and controlled, only losing her grip late in the action, Hedwall plays Fay as a woman on the edge from the very start, flying off the handle at a moment’s notice with a volcanic rage that later crystallizes all we’ve seen. There’s a wounded, guttural rasp to her voice in those moments that is downright frightening, but then she turns on a dime and becomes a rather simple woman who gives herself pep talks about keeping it together.
“I can take it,” Fay is fond of saying. But it’s clear she can’t. She’s falling apart before our very eyes, living on an emotional razor’s edge.
This production, in the Penguin-cozy confines of an upstairs space at 59E59, is a production of InProximity Theatre Company, a group gathering a reputation for fine work.
InProximity’s artistic director, Jolie Curtsinger, is cast as Rachel, Fay’s daughter, a role akin to sharing an elevator ride with a tornado. Rachel must stay out of Fay’s way, for her own survival, but before long she herself must deal with the wounds of her childhood, of what she witnessed. Curtsinger plays Rachel as more combative than the character seemed in Stony Point. There, actress Laura Heisler gave the character a sort of weariness that was understandable. She was just along for the ride, but still took in everything Fay sent her way. Curtsinger’s Rachel is more no-nonsense, less likely to let things slide. It’s a different choice — more active, more engaged, more challenging, more appropriate to this cast — and Curtsinger pulls it off convincingly.
In that way — in changes that heighten the characters and raise the stakes — perhaps this is a more “New York” version of “The Fall to Earth,” more in-your-face.
As Terry, the female officer, Amelia Campbell is still solid, funny and a bit quirky. We still wonder why she’s taking the time to step over lines of propriety to inject herself into the situation beyond the boundaries of the police station. Johnson and Brancato keep the given reason — Terry’s son has a reading disorder and Fay’s dead son was likewise an innocent — but there must be more to it than that.
If there is, it’s for us to decide, which is fine. Not all the t’s are crossed in life. Or in death.
Brancato has made a habit of finding Manhattan homes for shows he and producer Andrew Horn get on their feet in the charming barn on Crickettown Road from May to October. (“The Devil’s Music: The Life and Blues of Bessie Smith” is still playing at St. Luke’s on Restaurant Row on Mondays through March.)
But the great thing about Brancato is that he doesn’t rest with what works.
He’s always asking the next tough question, the one that challenges the writer and the actors. He has an impeccable ear.
By continuing to ask those questions — and to trust his ear — he’s taking the tougher road, the one that will bring truth to the stage, whether that stage is on East 59th Street or on a quiet road in rural Rockland County.
“The Fall to Earth,” 59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., Manhattan. Tonight at 8:15, tomorrow at 2:15 and 8:15; Sunday at 3:15. $35. 212-279-4200 or www.59e59.org.
Photo by John Quilty: Deborah Hedwall, left, and Jolie Curtsinger in “The Fall to Earth,” through Feb. 5 at 59E59 Theaters.