Coping with crisisShe is sitting on her sofa, reading a magazine, as we enter the theater, and she stays there until “curtain up.” This Woman (she is given no name; we do not even learn her surname, though we do learn of her husband. Still, we know him only as “he”) is the only individual in the play Girls and Boys by Dennis Kelly. The play is one of two in repertory at Burning Coal Theatre Company’s Second Stage Series, which runs now through June 27.

Our Woman (Lilly Nelson) is self-possessed and proceeds to tell us, as if we were a friend she was having over for coffee, about her life: how it came to be, who is involved, and how. She is a businesswoman, a mother, and a wife. Her husband works, or rather worked, outside the home, in a business different from his wife’s job. These are the salient facts as we learn of this lady’s background.

Our heroine is most involved, in this tale she tells us, with her two children, Leeanne and Danny. Leeanne is seven, Danny is somewhat younger, maybe even 3. He is a toddler, in any case; our lady can carry him easily in her arms. As the story progresses, we learn about how she and her husband met, and we see more of her interaction with her children. Even though we learn directly of hubby, we actually witness the scenes our lady has with her children; but these scenes pantomime the young ones’ presence. As the show progresses, this begins to tell on our lady. Finally, at one point about midway through the show, she stops, looks at us directly, and admits that no, she is not delusional; she is aware that, in reality, the children are not here. It is at this point that the entire color of the show changes, and a dark foreboding drops over the stage. Our lady continues unabated.

What she tells us, from this point on, is how it all came crashing down. Hubby’s company folds; he becomes despondent, starts to drink a little more, gains weight because he eats everything in sight, and generally begins a long slide downhill. While our lady marks this decline, she also tells us that she did not at first recognize its significance. She is preoccupied with her own job, and with the children. Hubby seems to fade. But when, finally, she confronts him and asks for a divorce, he is suddenly almost feral in his response. “You get no divorce. There is no way you are going to take my children. Ever.” Our lady is brought up short. He has shown no such interest in his children up to this point.

Nelson handled all of this narration with a skill that was phenomenal to witness. She was in turns nonchalant, serious, factual, breezy, suddenly concerned, and at times downright astonished, as she was when her character’s husband confronted her. Her every move was calm, easy, and matter-of-fact; until, that is, the dam burst. It was a performance well worth the viewing. In every respect, Nelson became our lady, and everything that happened, the good, the bad and the ugly, was a part and parcel of her characterization. To see everything, as we did, through her eyes, was to witness a horror so extreme as to rob one of her sanity. We were transfixed; Nelson had us in the palm of her hand. We were dragged unrelentingly in terror along with her character with every spellbinding move.

The director of Girls and Boys, Ana Radulescu, has molded her actress into a picture of the Woman Who Has It All. She then turns Nelson loose, and lets her character tell us all how her fairytale existence came to a sudden, wrenching end. It is a tale that runs the gamut, from breezy nonchalance to mind-numbing realization. Both Radulescu and Nelson have done their jobs superbly well, and we as witnesses to the event are left both breathless and in awe. Girls and Boys is a production that is as theatrical as any you will see on stage this year–perhaps any year. It is the tale of a horror so wicked as to be unbelievable. We are left wondering, at the end, if even our lady believes it. We certainly cannot.

Girls and Boys is a short work running about 90 minutes without intermission. Indeed, even if it were long enough to need one, an intermission in this play would be anathema to the work’s power. As it is, we were stunned; we were also, believe it or not, superbly entertained. 

Girls and Boys continues through Sunday, June 27. It is performing in repertory with Nine Lives by Zodwa Nyoni as part of Burning Coal’s Second Stage Series. For more details on these productions and performance times, please view the sidebar.