It doesn’t hit the bull’s eye on the target, but it’s only one mere circle away from it.
MILES FOR MARY brings us to a mythical Ohio town and into the teachers’ room at Garrison High School. Every year a committee convenes to plan a charity event. Two student athletes — a boy and a girl – are given a scholarship in honor of Mary Crane, a promising Garrison athletic star who had been tragically killed in a car accident nine years earlier.
If you don’t notice in the program that the play is set in 1989, you’ll soon catch on when a cassette is given as a gift. Hmmm, you say, CDs had been introduced seven years earlier; why wasn’t the present in the present format? It’s a nice way of showing that these people are a little behind the times.
The play follows the same trajectory as GOD OF CARNAGE. The teachers start out doing the best they can to be polite and open to everyone’s ideas. As a result, the script may well hold the record for the greatest use of the word “Okay.” Sometimes it’s said enthusiastically, sometimes agreeably –and sometimes testily.
For matters can stay “Okay” for only so long. As in Yasmina Reza’s Tony-winner, tempers simmer, burn and then erupt into four-alarm fires. Look in the dictionary under the word “cooperative,” and you WON’T find pictures of this sextet.
Twice you’ll hear “mea culpa” – which is easier than apologizing in English, isn’t it?
What’s strong is that the characterizations offer many surprises. The virtually bald and wimpy-thin Ken (Marc Bovino) — whom you’d surmise has never received as much as a good-night kiss from anyone — is married to an attractive clothes horse (Stacey Yen). Ron, the butch coach (Joe Curnutte) is one of the smartest; Sandra (Stephanie Wright Thompson), who seems just as butch, isn’t the girls’ gym teacher but a math instructor (although she does head an extracurricular club of “mathletes”). David (Michael Dalto) appears to be the natural leader, but Brenda (Amy Staats), although incapacitated – and on a speakerphone – wants to continue running the show although she seems woefully unqualified and is certainly unprepared.
Are two of the men secretly romantically involved? Watch for the one subtle line that suggests it. That may be up for questioning, but there’s no doubt that we aren’t watching captains of industry. If they manage to give each kid $500, they’ll consider the event a roaring success.
At one point when Ken tries to instruct everyone on a new phone system and isn’t going well by it, his wife says the play’s most telling line: “Ken isn’t a professional. He’s a teacher.”
So MILES FOR MARY reinforces the long-held belief that if you work with children day after day, you become childish, too. In essence, you become The Biggest Kid in the Class with the most power. So when you must deal in an adult manner with your so-called equals, you’re unfamiliar with the territory and ill-equipped for the challenge.
There’s lip-smacking potential here, but MILES FOR MARY simply isn’t as constantly funny or as incisive as a theatergoer would want. The audience did laugh now and then, but they didn’t for many long stretches – and yet they expected to. It’s a play that is oh-so-close, yes, but oh-so-far away, too.
And why is that? Let’s take a look at who wrote MILES FOR MARY. The official credit says “Created by The Mad Ones,” a theatrical collective. Underneath that is “Written by Marc Bovino, Joe Curnutte, Michael Dalto, Lila Neugebauer & Stephanie Wright Thompson.”
But wait! We’re not through. Underneath THAT is “In collaboration with Sarah Lunnie and the creative ensemble of Amy Staats & Stacey Yen.”
In other words, just as six characters in MILES FOR MARY plan their event, at least eight artists were in a room developing this play about them. Perhaps there were too many cooks, some of whom may have spoiled the broth from becoming tastier.
On the other hand, that these half-dozen performers were in on the writing may be one of the reasons why the acting is so effective. Here’s an ensemble worthy of an award. Brava to director Lila Neugebauer for forging the six into one.
And yet, what probably happened at The Mad Ones’ writing sessions with Neugebauer – “Let’s keep that line!” “No, we’ve got to drop that!” “I don’t see where that’s funny!” — might well have hit the bull’s eye that MILES FOR MARY just misses.