The CentaStage premiere of Michael Bettencourt's "Pictures at an Exhibition" has the most important things right. The play creates people and situations that are worth caring about, and it engages the audience with complicated issues in a way that honors their complexity. In its present form, however, the play splits into two separate "takes" on the material -- a wide-angle shot and a close up. The script makes use of an incident that made headlines in Boston a year or so back: a young mother was arrested at her local photo lab while picking up pictures of her nude four-year-old son after the lab workers called the police to report possible child pornography. The mere headline calls up a set of hot-button issues: freedom of speech and expression, the value of art production and the use of human beings as art material with or without their informed consent; parental rights and responsibilities; privacy, informers and a Big Brother police state that intrudes on the most intimate relationships, etc. --. Plenty of stuff to explore.
Bettencourt begins with a series of snapshots or background sketches of this situation, ripe for metaphoric interpretation. Margaret Pasqualini, (Elizabeth Duff) the young mother with an interest in photography, is a student at a community college who has begun to re-define herself as an artist. Her son is mute, and she is accustomed to acting as a sort of interpreter between him and the articulate world -- to speaking for him, giving him a voice. Margaret took the nude pictures of her son for a class project -- she intends to title the pictures "Innocence" and exhibit them in the college art show, sharing her delight in her son's childish beauty and his trusting nature. She expects to earn an "A" for her effort and skill, and eventually go on to a career as a photographer. Her husband Matthew (Douglas A. Flynn), a hard-working carpenter, is not pleased that Margaret is investing herself in art classes when her son and home need so much attention, but he is trying to be supportive of her ambition and her need for self-fulfillment.
A young woman (Sarah Parker) who works in the photo shop where the mother leaves the pictures to be developed finds them disturbing enough to label them pornographic, and talks the shop owner (Newell Young) into notifying the police. Margaret has chatted with the owner about her photography, and feels personally betrayed by his calling the cops on her -- how could he do that? He has spoken with her enough that he ought to know that she's not some sleaze ball pervert, but a sincere artist and a loving mother. The police (E Grace Noonan, Michael Ricca) question Margaret with an assume-the-worst bias that triggers a defensive explosion to which her child is witness. If the original picture session didn't traumatize the little boy, seeing his mom forcibly cuffed and dragged off to jail certainly would.
These active scenes are set off by little vignettes showing how the community reacts to the incident. There are media reporters and photographers who are hungry for sensationalism, a talk show caller (Peg Holzemer) eager to pass judgment, the family lawyer (George Saulnier III) out for the best deal, a censorious judge who delivers Margaret a lecture on parental duty as well as finding her guilty of disorderly conduct and malicious destruction of property. Margaret is given a choice between 30 days in jail or probation, community service, and a written apology. Hardening herself against her lawyer's advice and her husband's pleading that she submit for her family's sake, Margaret chooses to go to jail for the sake of principle-- although there is some question about whether the principle is freedom of expression or the right to privacy. Either way, the audience must engage: what proud parent hasn't taken a picture of a naked baby?
As written by Bettencourt and staged by CentaStage artistic director Joe Antoun, all this part of the play is presentational, with a multipurpose gray unit set assembled from a clumsy collection of boxes that the actors push and pull into place to mark the different locations and with short scenes played for the audience rather than to each other by a doubling and tripling cast some of whose performances comment on the type-characters and underline their socio-symbolic function. In the instance of the mute son, naturalism is abandoned altogether -- the boy appears only as mimed by the actress playing his mother. This forces the audience to realize that they can't possibly judge the quality of the emotional relationship between mother and child -- all that can be known is what Margaret expresses, Margaret's interpretation. We go out for intermission expecting that the second act will locate Margaret's interpretation within the first act's big picture.
That's not what happens. "Pictures" becomes a two character close-up, which is beautifully realized by deep and truthful acting from Duff and her second act scene partner, but which is moving in a sentimental way that seems at odds with the intellectual distance established by the multicharacter busy-ness of the first act. The action is confined to a barred jail cell, and centers on Margaret's relationship with her cell mate, Vera Cortez (Jacqui Parker), an abused Latina woman who we eventually find out is serving 25 years for complicity in her daughter's murder. Parker's Cortez is tough and assertive, and swiftly assigns Margaret a subordinate place in "her" space --"You here thirty days --- slumming. I been here a long time before you came, I got a lot of time left after you're gone". She is especially scornful of Margaret's privileged white liberal principles -- how could a mother be so selfish as to go to prison when all she had to do be home taking care of her son was to "chew crow and fake sorry"?
Jason Jeff Gardiner's cell set and Karen Perlow's lights
help transform the tone from political satire to depth psychology. The
set is now expressive, credible, and in a stark and menacing way, beautiful;
the mood serious. What comes through most strongly is the sense of
a mother's unique and compelling responsibility for her child's well-being---
and a feeling that this most intense instance of love and care is at the
same time a model for all human relationships. We are our fellows'
keepers. The shared burdens of motherhood, the joy and the
guilt, form the basis of a real moving, changing, growing relationship
between two women from very different backgrounds. Bettencourt has
created -- or transcribed, if he and the actress used a living model--
a character that gives Jacqui Parker the opportunity to give a performance
of a lifetime. The surface mask of the menacing cell mate is so fierce
and assured that it seems almost impossible to believe that this is a woman
who was battered into criminal passivity by her insane husband, battered
and defeated so thoroughly that she couldn't defend the daughter she loved.
But Parker believes it, understands and communicates it, every nuance of
vulnerability and remorse that underlies the woman's street tough exterior.
The the script and the performance affirm the art process, which was under
suspicion of being selfish and exploitive in act one, as the key to self
understanding and mutual empathy. By the end of the play, Margaret,
transformed --though not radically, she was a bit of a leftist activist
and do-gooder before this experience -- has asked for Cortez's help in
her new photography project, which is to do a series of portraits of the
women in the prison that will approach them with respect. Cortez
approves, as long as the project's purpose is to give those who are caged
in silence a witness and a voice. This is a very satisfying
ending -- but not for the first act's play. It's a different
picture, a different exhibition, the answer to a different set of questions.
The original questions return at curtain call, with all the actors who
played no part in act two.