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Theater review: "The May Queen" at Geva 

Molly Smith Metzler's tragicomedy "The May Queen" made its debut in 2014 as a commission from the Chautauqua Theater Company. It has always been a compelling work, but a lot has changed since its inception.

For one thing, the playwright (originally from Kingston, New York) has moved to Los Angeles and joined the writing team of the Netflix original series "Orange Is the New Black." But Metzler -- a SUNY Geneseo alum -- has also retooled "The May Queen. The show is now on stage at Geva Theatre Center in a new production directed by Amanda Charlton.

During Sunday's matinee performance on the Wilson Stage, it was evident that while the script retains its quirky characters and intelligent, emotionally incisive dialogue, the play had been trimmed and the tone of the work has evolved.

Inspired by her small-town roots and Kingston's historic high school tradition of crowning a "May Queen" each year, Metzler has given us an intensely personal story about the dangers of allowing where you come from to define who you ultimately become.

Jen Nash, who was once elected May Queen as a mere sophomore, returns to her hometown after a set of mysterious circumstances force her to take a temp position at a modest local insurance agency. Once she arrives, Jen must contend with the perceptions of her new coworkers David Lund and Gail Gillespie, who remember her vividly (or at least think they do) from her high school days. No one proves to be more problematic than Mike Petracca, who as a senior had nominated Jen to be May Queen, and now is feverishly fixated on reconnecting with her -- much to her torment.

As the play progresses, each character's tightly wound, closely guarded personal history gradually intersects with the others, until they crash and unravel as dark secrets are revealed. Metzler expertly establishes the discrepancies between the individual's internal reality and others' external judgments, and the ultimate revelation about the true nature of Jen and Mike's complicated connection makes for a devastating, but hopeful conclusion.

Some of the updates to "The May Queen" are obvious. In the original production, the desks were spread out across the stage, but here Scenic Designer Timothy R. Mackabee has clustered the four desks together in a roundtable formation at the center of the stage. Though it is an economical solution for the space, the claustrophobic, fluorescent-lit environment reinforces the intimate -- and often humorous -- drama of Metzler's tension-filled "office pod," a metaphor for the town of Kingston itself.

Other changes are more covert. The playwright has defined all five characters exceptionally well, and the cast members -- each making their Geva debuts -- brought them to life admirably. Julian Leong was supremely likable as the bookish David, whose obsessively encyclopedic knowledge of Kingston High School history helps to bring some refreshing comedic relief.

As the energetic Gail, who is fiercely protective of her coworkers, Kathryn Meisle imbued the character with a balanced blend of motherly empathy and intrusive gossip. Metzler employs Gail to outwardly articulate the dysfunction and frustrations of the office, and Meisle did the job with great clarity.

Natasha Warner was pitch-perfect as Nicole, the office's obnoxiously condescending and underqualified boss. Opposed to the Chautauqua premiere, in which the character was used more as a scapegoat to be laughed at, Charlton's staging lends more empathy to Nicole by the end of the play.

Ariel Woodiwiss displayed the excellent emotional range that is absolutely essential for Jen: from the timid, cautious temp just trying to get through the day in Act I to her brilliant, blistering soliloquy in Act II, in which she tells David and Gail about the sobering aftermath of her May Queen reign in a stunning blend of strength and vulnerability.

An actor of understated charisma, Peter O'Connor's portrayal of Mike Petracca was strong. But perhaps there was too much poise: Mike is well-meaning, but his delusive recollection of the past and propensity for alcoholism make him an inherently unstable person. The character's potency comes from his unpredictability and rash behavior. Here, O'Connor came off as more reserved than impulsive.

As a whole, Geva's version of "The May Queen" was less raw than its predecessor. The pacing was comfortably brisk, but it meant sacrificing some of the warts-and-all character exposition that can make the show powerful. In smoothing out the rough edges, there was less time for the full weight of characters' burdens to settle in with the audience -- and decidedly less catharsis when the burdens were at last lifted.

This was a mellower "May Queen." But fortunately, aided by a quality ensemble cast, the play's core charms remain intact.


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