Page 32 • Bay Windows • May 7, 1998
In a parent's place
'Pictures at an Exhibition' offers 'one of the best theatrical performances to be seen' in Boston all year
by Robert Nesti
Pictures at an Exhibition
by Michael Bettencourt, presented by Centastage at the BCA Theater
Boston Center for the Arts, Boston through May 23
"What have I done wrong?" asks photographer Margaret Pasqualini about midway through "Pictures at an Exhibition," Michael Bettencourt's new drama that is have its premiere by Centastage at the BCA. And the answer comes in an unexpected way in this intriguing new play that examines issues of parental responsibility with clarity and depth of feeling.
Margaret asks the question after being arrested for causing a disturbance in a photo lab where she had gone to pick up some proofs of pictures of her 4-year-old son. When she arrived she was greeted by a pair of plain-clothes policemen who had confiscated her proofs and negatives after having been tipped off by the lab's owner that the pictures may constitute child pornography. Margaret had taken some nude studies of her son for an advance photography class she is taking, and in a moment finds her competency as a parent being questioned. Enraged, she strikes back, and is arrested and soon finds herself the flavor-of-the-day on local news reports.
If this story sounds familiar it's because it was based on a real incident that happened in Cambridge not so long ago when a woman went into a photo lab to pick up her pictures and was confronted by local authorities. But as a voice-over points out at the play's onset, this isn't a docudrama based on that story; instead, the playwright uses the incident as a starting point for his own fictional interpretation. In fact none of the real-life participants were involved in the writing of the play.
Margaret is, of course, justifiably enraged, especially as the media storm rages around her. Weighing her options, she ignores the advice of her husband and legal counsel and decides to make a stand on what she perceives as an issue of morality run amok, and she chooses jail over a plea bargain. Yet Bettencourt shrewdly suggests that perhaps his heroine has transgressed in her responsibilities as a parent, if the little, unseen Alex will remember posing for the pictures. "Would he wonder what his mother has done to him?" asks one of the supporting characters.
Bettencourt's first act relates the incidents surrounding Margaret's arrest and conviction in a breezy, almost glib style that recalls a script for some made-for-TV movie. And if this were all "Pictures at an Exhibition" had to offer its audience, it would be a fairly obvious exercise in liberal outrage. But the far more interesting second act gives the play stature and depth. If the play has a model it is, oddly, Martin Sherman's "Bent," in which a protagonist's moral dilemma is established in a quick, cinematic style in the first act, followed by a longer, more thoughtful examination of the issues in the second. Not that the play has the searing intensity of Sherman's work, but it has an intensity nonetheless.
In the second act Margaret has been placed in a cell for her month's incarceration with a feisty prisoner named Cortez. Cortez establishes the ground rules of their relationship immediately, taking charge of her space and dismissing Margaret's white liberal righteousness. "You chose to come here when all you have to do is eat crow and act sorry?" she asks incredulously.
But as the act continues the two become unlikely friends with Cortez finally opening up in a beautifully modulated speech in which the demons that plague her sleep finally are expressed. This sequence -- played with heartbreaking sincerity by Jacqui Parker -- distinguishes the play and takes it to another level. Cortez's story becomes, in effect, a counterpoint to Margaret's, and one that allows the audience to see the issues raised in a less black-and-white manner. Issues of race and class come into play here, but the underlying issue of what one's responsibility is as a parent becomes the over-riding one; and it brings the characters together with an unforced simplicity.
The production, under the direction of Joe Antoun, plays to the script's strengths. Clean and economic, it unfolds at a nicely paced clip in the more incident-driven first act, then smoothly changes gears for the more character-driven second act. Antoun's deft touches can be seen throughout, but his chief strength is the depth of feeling he elicits from his lead actresses. As Margaret, Elizabeth Duff balances her defiance with her self-doubt with much delicacy and grows in the role. And as Vera Cortez the aforementioned Parker is amazing, establishing her tough character in quick, broad strokes, then allowing the audience inside for her affecting confession with unflinching naturalism.
The supporting cast is adequate at best, though Douglas A. Flynn brings a boyish sincerity to the role of Margaret's husband. The modular design elements of Jeff Gardiner's set work will within the play's cinematic structure, as does Karen Perlow's lighting design.
There are some problems: Bettencourt rather awkwardly establishes the marital problems caused by Margaret's dedication to photography, and some of his bits satirizing the news media are obvious at best. But "Pictures at an Exhibition" proves surprisingly effective, and is one of better new scripts to have a premiere here in Boston in quite some time. And in the performance of Jacqui Parker, offers one of the best performances to be seen here all year. See the play to see her, and you won't be disappointed.
For tix ($16) to "Pictures at an Exhibition" at the BCA Theater, 539 Tremont St. Boston, call 426-0320. Info: 536-5981.