ANNE: Having a family is just a haunting.
ISABEL: But it’s what I want.
In Will Arbery’s “Plano,” speaking is synonymous with manifesting. Geography and time are crammed into the span of deadpan incantations: “Later. It’s later.” Suddenly, it’s later. Suddenly, we’re in Dallas. Goddammit, no, we’re in Plano, “Dallas’ synthetic ghost,” according to Genevieve, whose porch we spend the entirety of the play on while stretching our metaphysical bodies across space. “Plano” thrives on a rushing-toward-death tempo while its central trio of sisters balance on an emotional high wire, jumbling from marriage to pregnancy to a plague of slugs to a husband’s sadness inhabiting its own body.
You can’t come to “Plano” for plot. Any semblance of narrative is shredded for the sake of strong character, metaphor and theatricality, all of which are taken head-on (for better and for worse) by director Audrey Francis and the cast. Elizabeth Birnkrant, Ashley Neal and Amanda Fink play a trio of sisters who are haunted (as everything is) by mediocre and laborious masculinities that leach and steal from them. Traumas big and small aggregate. The sisters move around and through the piles with degrees of agony and frustration. Although the primary emotion and invocation is delusion, the sisters can see and advise each other with relative clarity although they tell themselves lies until they become true.
Come for the cast. This is an ensemble show where even the men, who offer levels of the mundanely despicable, become empathetic figures (if still lukewarm). The three sisters, however, are the strongest component. Watching them perform is a technical wonder—the lies they tell themselves are as convincing as the cracks we see forming in them—and a spectacle of endurance: the energy they maintain through the show is acrobatic.
The mechanisms that Arbery deploys are wonderful distortions of theatrical space and imagination, but I have contentions: Arbery, in presenting the lineal trauma of women, very easily lets them be in orbit of the men. For a playwright who understands the power of description, what is Arbery thinking in recreating these instances of psychic breakage?
As for Francis’ direction, it works for the most part. But at some point, the tempo reaches a drone and it becomes clear that the audience is neither in “Plano” nor witnessing “Plano.” Instead, we’re passively observing it, which undercuts the central acts of violence represented in the last moments of the show. Or maybe it’s an indictment of our passive participation in those cycles of trauma. In any case, I guess an honest response is the same:
“Oh, Lord. Fuck. Okay.”
Truly. (Persephone Jones)
First Floor Theater at Steppenwolf Theatre Company’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 North Halsted, (312)335-1650, firstfloortheater.com, $15-$35. Through March 25.