Review by Karen Topham, ChicagoOnstage, member American Theatre Critics Association, photo by Gracie Meier.
Plano—the real Plano—is a town in Texas. In Will Arbery’s play Plano, though, it is also a state of mind, and sometimes it is a curse in which, as one character notes, “we’re ghosts of ourselves, like we’re dying and coming back, over and over again, and when we come back, we’re a little warped, a little stranger, and there’s no way out, we’re trapped in a disintegrating loop.” With rocket-paced dialogue, lots of humor, and a plot that veers deeply into the surreal, Plano does not merely acknowledge that curse; it immerses us fully within its time-fracturing, inescapable pseudo-reality. Arbery has created a play that is at once a memory, a philosophy, and a nightmare.
At the core of this play are three sisters—and you’re forgiven if you instantly think of Chekhov—who live in separate houses in Dallas. The eldest, Anne (Elizabeth Birnkrant), is a lonely college professor who, at the start of the play, has just married a laborer whose name is Juan but who, since he is now a part of bourgeois American life, prefers John. (John, played by Christopher Acevedo, may or may not have married her for a green card and may or may not be gay.) The middle sister, Genevieve (Ashley Neal), is a sculptor who is married and has three small children. (Her husband, Steve, played by Andrew Cutler, is a critic and “prestigious Dallas cultural gatekeeper” whose jealousy of his wife’s growing success leads him to stray.) The youngest sister, Isabel (Amanda Fink) is a hypochondriac hyper-Christian who is deeply content to be married to God; “Don’t become a nun,” Genevieve admonishes her at one point. The God she believes in, though, partially represented onstage by a male presence known as the “Faceless Ghost” (Andrew Lund), is most definitely male. In fact, for a play about three women, there is a tremendously significant male influence in Plano, which is possibly related to the caustic relationship these women had with their father.
From the beginning, it is clear that this is not going to be a realistic play. If you aren’t clued in by the strikingly unfinished house (by Kristen Martino), then you discover it when Arbery starts playing with time, which collapses on itself on many occasions. Anne lets us know what will be happening when she introduces her new husband to her sisters, telling Isabel, “I’ll introduce him later. It’s later, here he is.” This simple device, which forms the basis for Audrey Francis’ quickly-paced direction, allows five years in the sisters’ lives to be condensed into a play that lasts less than an hour and a half. Anne overtly acknowledges it at one point: “Oh weird. I thought that things proceeded through time. But I guess they don’t…I think everything happens all at once, all at once in a random hell.” That “random hell” is where she and her sisters have become stuck as they desperately try to escape their own “Planos.” No one can really “escape” Plano, though; two different characters refer to an attempt to do so as an “odyssey,” though no one will listen to them. And Genevieve is so sick of it—Steve often vanishes there, as does John—that she cries out, “Stop saying Plano, I hate Plano.” Plano, she feels, is “where all the big-haired boob ladies live…Plano is like Dallas’ synthetic ghost.” Steve replies, “Everyone hates Plano. But Plano has happened to me. I’ve undergone a Plano.”
The “curse” of Plano manifests in several ways, among which is a plague of slugs in Anne’s house. “They’re creatures from Hell. I’m living in Hell. Every morning I wake up to sticky tracks across the kitchen. Sometimes I find one lying with its pasty belly up because it couldn’t move its bestial fat body any further.” Another is the strange fact that husbands seem to start to multiply. A second “Steve” suddenly shows up, and later a third. Anne finds herself with a second plague, this one of invisible Johns that she can’t seem to escape. Both of the original men find great solace in these doppelgangers. Steve says at one point that “It’s nice to have two of oneself. He’ll be the one who eats, I’ll be the one who’s skinny. He’ll be the dad, I’ll be the genius. And he’ll be here, and I’ll be everywhere else.” Isabel, who has moved to Chicago, is cursed with a succession of strange diseases that only she can sense and, later, with the omnipresence of the Faceless Ghost, who becomes more and more sexual and dangerous as the play goes on. And although John tells Anne that “the way to get through a curse is to pretend there is no curse,” not even their children seem to help the women to ignore it. Genevieve’s children spend much of the play stuck in Plano with Steve #1, and Anne is so detached from her son, Javier Greg, that at one point she calls him “It” and she never even bothers to potty train him. (She references pulling a slug out of a dirty diaper when he is five.)
Very late in the play—far later than we’d expect a new character to be introduced—the growing insanity of the sisters’ lives prompts a visit from their mother Mary (Janice O’Neil). Though she is there to help them, Mary’s visit opens bad memories from their childhood, including her own fantasy—which, in a fold of time, we see played out—of becoming Medea and killing them all. It’s not the only violence in the play—at one point, the women try to kill Steve #2 with, among other things, a copy of Knausgård’s My Struggle: Book One but it doesn’t take. However, far more violence, on an emotional level, has already been done to the girls in childhood. Isobel complains to Mary that “you locked me in a room with God, you said ‘here’s a God who loves you’ but you didn’t tell me it might be a God who hates me too or ignores me.” When Mary tries to calm Genevieve by telling her she is “on the verge of a nervous breakdown,” her middle daughter says, “Stop it Mom I’m past the point of a nervous breakdown. I’m going to break into crystals and set fires everywhere I go.” Meanwhile, her visit results at one point in Anne, who has proclaimed her main goal in life as, “I just don’t want to be sad all the time,” collapsing in tears.
Ultimately, what Plano is about is the ways in which we help each other—or don’t—to get through our lives. As Mary tells them, they are all part of a “tiny world that goes on forever.” And Genevieve says that she’s been working on a new sculpture, which “is about things leaning on other things, the ways things lean on other things,” but the reality is that, even with such a positive goal, “it’s also a sculpture about losing everything you had, even the things you still have.” You have to go through the pain to have any meaningful life at all. Isobel says at one point, “how horrible to die when you’re still alive,” and all of these characters, trapped in their own Planos, struggle against that notion. Despite the fact that, as Anne tells us, “curses have form, but the form disintegrates, and every moment either multiplies or disappears,” Steve says that there is an upside. On the odyssey back from Plano, he tells us, “I meet so many characters and learn so much about myself.” Even though “when you come back you come back a stranger,” it might be worth the journey. After all, it’s the only journey we have.
Plano is a First Floor Theater production now playing at Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted, Chicago, IL, until Mar 28. The show runs approximately 90 minutes; there is no intermission. Check the website for specific dates, times, and tickets. Find more information about current plays in our front page recs and attheatreinchicago.com.