There are realists, and then there are idealists. There are head people, and there are heart people. There are those with their feet on the ground and those with their head in the clouds. In the teachings of philosopher Rudolf Steiner—I always liked this—there are gnomes, earthly, and fairies, sublime.

Elise, the mom in CoHo Productions' new show, Crooked, is a gnome. When her husband, once a University of Wisconsin sociology professor, descends into mental illness, the perpetual list-maker needs to tick off only two criteria in order to make the terrible decision to institutionalize him: Is he a danger to himself? (Yes.) Is he a danger to others? (Yes.) Laney, Elise's 14-year-old daughter, is a gnome, too—but she no longer wants to be. Too smart for her own good and too old for her age—her shoulders have already been wrenched crooked by an anxiety-related muscle disorder—Laney sees her mother's pragmatist worldview as having condemned her father to life in a psych ward—and she fears it could somehow lead to her abandonment as well.

When mother and daughter move from Madison back to Elise's hometown of Oxford, Mississippi, Laney meets fellow misfit Maribel, a simple, deeply religious girl. In Maribel, Laney sees not just an opportunity for some garden-variety teenage rebellion against her militantly secular mom, but also an alternative to the rationalism that seems to have brought her only suffering. Unfortunately for Laney, once a gnome, always a gnome; if she's to find a way to forgive her mother and be at peace, she'll have to find it down here in the dirt.

Written by Kansas-based dramatist Catherine Trieschmann, Crooked is a small wonder of a play—its 90 minutes as magically packed with big ideas about reason and faith as Mary Poppins's carpetbag. Trieschmann is a skillful, often funny, and above all economical playwright, wasting not one line of dialogue as she explores Crooked's dense, but never ponderous, themes and draws the play's sharply outlined, artfully shaded characters.

Crooked
Coho Theatre
May 19–June 8
As talented as Trieschmann is, on CoHo's floorboards, director Philip Cuomo and his three-woman cast prove themselves to be at least the playwright's equals. Kayla Lian, as Laney, fully embodies the excruciating awkwardness of being a fourteen-year-old—a gifted fourteen-year-old, no less—with her quavering voice and ever-fearful gaze, while Meghan Chambers, as Maribel, delivers a tightly controlled performance showing just how deep her character's still waters run. In a play with only three roles, the onus is on the actors to lift the script off the page; the cast of CoHo's production have shouldered the burden of bringing Trieschmann's well-crafted, powerful work to life with might as well as grace.

 

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