“Driving Miss Daisy” playwright and Atlanta native Alfred Uhry has turned Vanity Fair journalist Marie Brenner’s memoir of her brother’s struggle with cancer, “Apples & Oranges,” into a two-person play, and Atlanta is lucky enough to have the world premiere, on the Alliance Theatre’s Hertz Stage through October 28.
Uhry keeps things pretty pared down: it’s a two-character play with minimal set. As narrator and guide, Patricia Richardson is called on to carry a great deal. There’s a beautiful alertness and liveliness to her performance, an instant sympathy with her plainspoken openness. We share her frustration, her sense of humor, her disbelief.
Tony Carlin captures her brother Carl’s obstinacy and idiosyncrasies well. We’re reminded that an idiosyncratic person often believes that his oddness is simply the result of uncommon good sense, that it’s his superior power of discernment that has made him choose to live as he does. “Closets are a waste of space,” Carl says to Marie as a way of explaining his choice to live in a cruddy motel room rather than an apartment. He’s not making excuses for himself; he’s quickly dispensing with the dreary task of explaining the obvious to someone he thinks is a little clueless.
We get a strong sense of the two characters, but we never get a real sense of the more crucial question: why they need each other in spite of their differences. The play opens with Marie admitting that she has always identified primarily as “Carl’s sister,” but we never get the sense, emotionally, of why he remains so central to her or why she seeks his approval. In this story of illness, we often feel that we’re arriving at the same situation over and over: she rushes to be by his side, and he defensively pushes her away. It’s a telling situation, and a lot of comedy and pathos are drawn from it — we see her admiration for him, his fear of becoming helpless — but we seldom feel we’re at a dwelling moment.
Plenty of people don’t get along with their siblings and eventually let the relationship fall away. But Marie won’t let this one fall away; she’s doggedly making sure that she’s there. She’s a sophisticated New Yorker and he’s proud of getting by in the “real America” of rural Washington, so there’s a “red vs. blue” dynamic that gets some genuine laughs, but it seems too familiar, too easily leaned upon. We get an amusing, touching history of insult and estrangement, but not the nature or source of Marie’s great need.
“Driving Miss Daisy” was essentially a two-character play that had a third character. Daisy’s son provided another onstage presence, someone for both main characters to talk to and more specifically (and more crucially) to talk about each other with. Though that play covered a huge expanse of time, the main characters met when they were both adults, so we got a complete picture of the relationship’s development. Here, we’re somewhat in the dark about the foundation and origin of the connection. Perhaps there’s not enough of the siblings’ youthful relationship brought to the stage, but that’s a difficult thing to do given the parameters of the production.
The talented actors, the crisp writing, the worlds that open up on the bare stage — it’s all an impressive feat. But there’s an overall zinging fleetness and efficiency to the hour-and-a-half play that does not work in its favor. “Apples and Oranges” is undoubtedly the best thing on any Atlanta stage at the moment, but there’s still something slightly amiss. There’s never a feeling of slowing down, of shared space, of proximity, which is what should lie at the heart of a play like this.
When Marie is informed of the particular circumstances of her brother’s death, she says, “This is so like him.” In some ways we know what she means, but in other ways, the most crucial ones, we don’t. What exactly is so like him? We wish we knew. We feel that we’ve been too briefly in the presence of a funny, eloquent narrator, one who creates a thumbnail sketch of her pain but never really becomes transparent so we can see it for ourselves. It’s touching but not heartbreaking.