Augustana College’s Getting Out, directed by Jeff Coussens, is the story of one woman’s difficulties in reconstructing her life after being released from prison, and author Marsha Norman’s 1978 play is a brilliant depiction of life's realities for a woman who has been caught in a cycle of violence, beginning with abuse as a child. Although she served her time in prison and has been released, she now has the real “getting out” to do – getting out of her own psychological hell.
Norman's drama employs two actors to portray its central character. Sarah Baker plays the present-day Arlene, newly released from prison, and Megan Hammerer is Arlene’s younger self Arlie, who has led a life of pain and crime. Arlie/Arlene inhabit the stage simultaneously for much of Getting Out's action, and the script is an unrelenting tale of emotional struggle requiring acting ability of great range and skill, not only to sustain the intensity and drama, but to create dimensions of character and inner reality. It would be a challenge for the most accomplished of performers, and I was happy to see Augie's cast reach so high. Baker’s challenge is to portray a depressed, broken woman haunted by her violent past. Although all vestiges of her formerly passionate, intense personality seem to have been eradicated (possibly as a result of depression), Baker exudes a very effective, quiet resolve as she stands up to Bennie (Samuel Langellier), a creepy, controlling prison guard, and to her mother (Madison Mortenson), who reminds Arlene of her shortcomings and predicts she'll never change. But most importantly, Baker makes one care about her character. One wants Arlene to win.
Hammerer is wonderfully cast as Arlie, exerting enormous emotional energy while enacting the abused child, angry adolescent, and willfully uncooperative inmate. Hers is a most difficult task: sustaining audience interest during her frequent and ongoing rage-filled tirades by providing variations of emotional tones. However, her direction in this regard was sometimes found wanting; as time went on, I found myself tuning out a bit, feeling as if I had heard it all before.
Debo Balogun delivers a powerful, menacing turn as Arlene’s former pimp Carl. His is, perhaps, the production's most emotionally truthful performance, and Balogun's interactions with Arlene provide enormous tension as he tries to convince her to return to a life of prostitution, where she can earn more in two hours than in a week as a dishwasher. Although he's onstage for just a few brief moments, Nick Romero effectively strolls through as an imperious warden. And Emily Johnson's Ruby – Arlene’s upstairs neighbor who has successfully transitioned into post-prison life as a cook – has a down-to-earth realism, and one feels a glimmer of hope for Arlene once the two women begin to bond.
Although Getting Out is a wonderful play, I found it difficult to be fully engaged here. My difficulty stemmed, in part, from the moments in which actions didn't seem based in true motivation, as in Bennie’s sudden change of heart in a critical scene, and Carl’s unconvincing retreat from Bennie in another. Also, the stage business and props were sometimes ineffective: a broom used randomly and without focused intent; an apparently empty milk carton falling out of a full sack of groceries. (And why, in the opening scene, had the previous tenant left so many pieces of wadded-up paper all over the floor, other than to give Arlene something to pick up? Was that tenant a frustrated writer?) And then there was the basic but all-important factor of projection. Although the actors gave excellent, realistic line deliveries, they spoke so fast, and with Southern and “street” accents, that projection was doubly important, yet oftentimes missing here.
Based on past shows I had seen at Augustana, I came in with very high expectations, and because I was so easily pulled out of the play's reality, I wondered if I was simply being overly critical and too easily distracted – a case of "It's not you; it's me!" But the reality remains: I couldn’t enter the emotional forest because of the representative trees. There were some beautifully realized moments of real drama, but this Getting Out was not knit together as a whole, and did not provide the sustained emotional realism and tension necessary to deliver the anticipated knock-out punch.
Getting Out runs at Augustana College's Potter Theatre (Bergendoff Hall of Fine Arts, 3701 Seventh Avenue, Rock Island) through February 7, and more information and tickets are available at (309)794-7306 or Augustana.edu/arts.