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Understanding that it’s a 50-minute drama presented by Children’s Theatre of Charlotte almost exclusively to 10,000 middle school students around Mecklenburg County, you might expect that Dennis Foon’s Liars would be a lightweight script with superficial character development. But like Foon’s New Kid, which invented its own language to show us what it feels like to be a foreigner plopped into an American high school, Liars is a unique brew. With a responsive group of mostly students, I saw a preview performance of Liars, now in its second annual edition, at Wells Fargo Playhouse – the smaller of the two Children’s Theatre venues at ImaginOn – eights days after the production began touring. Judging from their response during a post-show talkback and afterwards, filing out of the hall, students found the show credible, engaging, and provocative. I found the all-adult cast quite extraordinary.
The central characters, Lenore and Jace, are opposites who attract. Lenny is a model student from a well-to-do home, wholesome and current with her schoolwork, while Jace comes into class from his broken, impoverished home stoned on weed, obviously not studying or caring. But when the two classmates discuss their differences for the first time, Jace surprises Lenny by asking her out, and Lenny – maybe surprising herself – accepts. They soon discover that they have a lot in common. Jace’s dad is a drunk, an unemployed janitor (if I caught the cue from costume designer Courtney Scott correctly) who can’t be trusted to keep his word when he says his son can have the car keys on Saturday night – or even trusted to remember the promise. Lenny’s dad is an upstanding construction boss who prides himself on providing for his family, but he refuses to acknowledge that his wife has a drinking problem, even after we’ve seen Lenny picking her mother up off the floor.
Much of this info is exchanged between Jace and Lenny on their first date during a moonlight game of truth and dare. While the date doesn’t exactly have a dreamy, romantic ending, it seems like the exchange has its effect on both the teens, for shortly afterwards, both Jace and Lenny are confronting their parents about their drinking. This isn’t Hollywood or sitcom TV, so these interventions don’t go well in either household. Jace’s blowup with his dad is especially violent, and he winds up leaving home, living in a park, and dropping out of school. After failing to convince her parents that they need help, Lenny is no more successful in convincing Jace to straighten up and quit smoking weed. They’ve both lost the one person they can confide in.
Shockingly enough, that’s where Foon leaves things, disdaining a tidy or preachy denouement. In a carefully structured talkback after the final blackout, students could vote on likely outcomes for Jace and Lenny, try to reach consensus on the relative merits of the five characters, and voice dissenting opinions. All of the talkback took place with the actors off-script but still in character, posing the questions to the audience and then arranging themselves onstage according to the audience’s rankings. All was executed with admirable aplomb by the ensemble of four actors, directed by Mark Sutton. I was particularly impressed by the local debut of Quill Parker as Jace. Without the benefit of all the necessary props, Parker simulated the actions of lighting up and getting high as vividly as being high. He credibly blended all of Jace – coarse, resentful, volatile, and vulnerable – into a cohesive and sympathetic portrait. He was so credible begging for pocket change near the end of the drama that I worried whether the eighth graders in the front row were about to shower him with money. The audience vote decisively declared that Jace would turn out to be a drug addict, but perhaps the question should have been asked whether he would become a drug dealer, particularly since the playwright hadn’t already turned Jace into one. I wonder if that vote would have gone differently.
Since her student days at Davidson College, Metrolina theatergoers have had a few years to become accustomed to how amazing Maret Seitz can be on stage. She sustains that high level here as Lenny, acting in a vivacious style I’ve never seen from her before, managing to double-underline for us all her unspoken attraction toward Jace while concealing those emotions demurely from him. The supporting players both get to wrestle with the one important prop onstage, a huge black dummy that is clearly the monkey on the addicts’ backs. As Lenny’s Mother, Debra Mein gets to go through the customary motions of a suburban housewife’s drunkenness, but Mom’s special individuality lies in the virulence of her denial, which goes to the extreme of accusing Lenny of getting stoned on her date and forbidding her to see Jace again. That’s where Mein gets to shine. J.R. Jones plays both of the dads, carrying around the monkey as Jace’s disheveled dad and changing into a smartly pressed dress shirt to become Lenny’s bossy, enabling dad. There was certainly no lack of menace in Jones’s portrait of Jace’s bullying boozer of a dad, but when a student raised her hand at the end of the talkback to reshuffle the moral order established by the audience, it was to place Lenny’s Father at the bottom. It was an appropriate tribute to a chilling performance.