A bitter, burned out college professor is accused of destroying the life of an innocent former student in the bleak, brilliant, dark drama Better Strangers. The production premiered at The Magnetic Theater last weekend. It’s onstage through Saturday, Oct. 7.
Maybe the college professor did as he was charged. Perhaps the damage was unintentional. Or maybe it never happened at all. These are the questions that arise in Better Strangers, masterfully written by playwright Lucia Del Vecchio. This story keeps twisting and turning in unexpected ways. The viewer is never sure who is the victim and who is the manipulator.
Director Callan White draws some stunning performances from the cast, moving the sympathy from one character to another. This show marks White’s directorial debut at the Magnetic.
Veteran actor Andrew Gall, who spent many years at Parkway Playhouse before joining the Magnetic, is superb as the confused and admittedly failed professor John Lambert. And in her stage debut, Emily Tynan McDaniel is amazing as the former student Joanna Tilley, whose reunion with her former teacher is at first puzzling, then powerful and frightening.
She has quite a story to tell. But what, exactly, is it? It all starts with Joanna’s unexpected visit at John’s office, where it’s quickly clear that he has no idea who she is. And it is equally obvious that she is carrying a huge emotional load. But just what that is, and what she wants from John, remain unclear.
Joanna’s gift of whiskey and a constant series interrupting texts from John’s impatient wife do not make this any easier.
The audience does eventually learn that the trouble happened 20 years ago. When what seems to be the truth is finally revealed, it raises issues of how to straighten the mess out, if it can be resolved at all.
A story like this requires strong acting talents. Gall long ago proved his skills, working as director, actor and playwright. His portrayal of John reveals a deeply flawed man who has his own dark burdens. But McDaniel is the real surprise. Without any previous stage acting credits, she reaches deep within to craft this character who seemingly knows where her young life went off the rails. It’s rare that the audience ever sees the birth of an acting career, but McDaniel’s potential seems endless.
As layers are peeled away and details revealed, some viewers will be squirming in their seats — particularly in the second act. It’s a riveting ride and in no way a light night of entertainment. It raises thought-provoking issues of responsibility and who is to blame when life goes wrong.
WHAT: Better Strangers
WHERE: The Magnetic Theatre, 375 Depot St. themagnetictheatre.org
WHEN: Thursdays-Saturdays through Oct. 7, at 7:30 p.m. $16