Near the middle of Craig Lucas’ “The Singing Forest,” Loe Rieman (Robin Bartlett), an aging Holocaust survivor, describes the titular phenomenon.
Recalling the terror of the concentration camps, she poetically describes the “chorus” of screams emanating from a group of prisoners being hanged. Half-horrified, half-awed, Loe is affected deeply by her traumatic past — an infamous event skillfully interwoven in the fabric of this wrenchingly personal play.
“The Singing Forest” features male nudity, appearances by the swastika-emblazoned Gestapo and detailed descriptions of methods of homicide.
But this is no “Schindler’s List”-for-the-stage: The play has its share of well-timed comedy, vignettes that humorously encapsulate the vagaries of turn-of-the-21st-century culture and a satisfyingly hopeful ending.
Rieman, played brilliantly by the gray-bewigged, prosthetic saggy-skin-wearing Bartlett, is the focal point of the story. A recluse who has had her share of life experiences, Rieman spends her time alone in her Staten Island apartment. Her main sources of diversion are manning a questionable phone “support” line and following the developments of her fantastically famous family — especially her grandson Jules Ahmad, heir to a fortune derived from his mother’s marrying a wealthy Arabian sheik, immolating said sheik and effortlessly being acquitted in the following jury trial.
Lucas, who also penned the 2004 New York Film Critics’ best screenplay pick “The Secret Lives of Dentists” and 1992’s “Prelude to a Kiss,” lightens the tone of the play by incorporating well-developed comedic themes throughout the production.
At one point, Loe, whose “support” line is really a phone-sex hotline run from her apartment, receives a call from one of her clients when she is in the middle of having a serious discussion with her son Oliver (John Vickery). Ever the multi-tasker, she toughens her grandmotherly voice for a brief moment in order to bark at the caller “Don’t come in. I live with my pimp, and he’ll kill you!” through a vocoder. The result is side-splitting hilarity.
The play is fascinating because of the adeptly conceived connections between the characters. To quickly recap each biological link in a 600-word review would read like literary slapstick.
The play certainly has its share of moments that approximate the genre of bedroom farce. For example, in the second act, each of the eight main characters convenes in Loe’s apartment for a psychological showdown and impromptu group therapy session. Flamboyantly homosexual characters are urged to hide in closets against their vehement protests, and the play temporarily loses its focus.
The play cuts back and forth across time. Each of the nine principle cast members portrays an urban American denizen living in the year 2000 in the first third of the play. But by the second act, each actor doubles as a character living in 1930s Vienna, and by the third act, the actors are switching from the latter two settings to a new one (Paris in the spring of 1945) and back again by virtue of subtle voice, accent and costume changes.
In this task, Kristin Flanders ’85 DRA ’91 steals the show. Flanders, who alternates between portraying a tattling, three-weeks-pregnant Starbucks employee and a plucky, smart, young Loe Rieman, flawlessly glides between the two personas, sometimes making the switch in the middle of uttering a sentence.
If Lucas meant to embed a message about the connection among all people, Flanders is the embodiment of this theme. In the third act, after a demeaned 20-something Loe has been raped by a member of the Nazi police, she fights back by defiantly singing; in the process, Flanders reveals the type of vocal talent that surely gave rise to the phrase “voice of an angel.”
The directorial decision not to reveal this talent until the final scenes of the play — and then, for only a few brief but powerful moments — reflects Lucas’ and director Bartlett Sher’s canny sense of propriety and respectful restraint. Combined with impeccable acting and sharp writing, this tone allows the play to join the ranks of the truly exceptional.