Johnna Adams' Work Is Back in OC With the Wrenching, Intimate 'Sans Merci' at Hunger Artists

Back In Bleak
Prodigal daughter Johnna Adams’ work is back on an OC stage with the wrenching, intimate Sans Merci

In recovery-speak, “pulling a geographic” means physically relocating to a new locale in hopes that a move will change one’s behavior.

It seldom works for addicts; demons love road trips. But Johnna Adams’ geographic apparently did wonders for her playwrighting. Consider Sans Merci,a play Adams wrote after attending a workshop in New York City—and while planning her move to the Big Apple three years ago, after a decade of working in Orange County storefront theater.

Receiving its first local production courtesy of the Hunger Artists, Sans Merci is an intimate three-character play about the devastating toll that a young woman’s horrific murder inflicts upon two other women. It contrasts starkly to Adams’ OC work, most of which centered on colorfully off-kilter rural Texas characters and incorporated elements of sci-fi, horror and weird religious rituals.

The weirdest Adams gets in Sans Merci is her unabashed appreciation of the 19th-century English poet John Keats, whose 1819 poem La Belle Dame Sans Merci supplies the play’s title, as well as a great deal of conversational fodder for the characters.

In literary terms, Sans Merci is narrative realism; in theater terms, it’s a small parlor play. In the way real people speak, it’s a sit-around-and-talk play. But Adams’ emphasis on heightened language—both Keats’ and her own—forces the audience to listen intently, preventing it from coming off as a long-winded gabfest. And the skillfully drawn, emotionally fraught battle over a dead college student’s memory by the women who loved her keeps Adams’ story from sounding too precious or dainty; these are smart characters who may speak more eloquently than the rest of us, but whose hearts have broken as painfully and intensely as anyone’s.

It’s a rainy morning in Southern California, and Kelly (Amber Noonan) is bumming big-time. She sits, near-catatonic, in the middle of her small, cluttered apartment, staring into space. Her brooding is interrupted by a knock on the door supplied by a woman she’s never met or spoken to: Elizabeth (Cynthia Ryanen), the mother of Kelly’s former roommate, Tracy.

Elizabeth is there, apparently, to finally start making peace with the fact that, three years earlier, her daughter had been raped and murdered in a small village in Colombia. Kelly had been brutalized in the same attack.

Initially, Elizabeth seems to want closure, through picking up Tracy’s belongings and speaking to the last person who saw her daughter alive. But it soon becomes evident that Elizabeth is mostly angry: not at the animals who killed her daughter, but at Kelly. A passionate left-wing activist, Kelly had proposed that the two college students make the journey to help indigenous villagers fight a petroleum company’s attempt to ravage their land.

But Elizabeth isn’t just angry that Kelly’s politics persuaded her once naive, Bible-studying, Republican-voting daughter to travel to a political hot spot: She’s also angry that Kelly was Tracy’s lover. She blames Kelly for awakening not only questionable political thinking in her daughter’s mind, but also the even-more-questionable sexual practices of her body.

Ryanen, who confirms her status as one of Orange County’s most accomplished actors with her portrayal of Elizabeth, is angry, vindictive, jealous and achingly human. She is a hardcore conservative not seeking answers so much as a face for the person whom she believes destroyed her daughter’s life. But she’s also all mother, haunted and heartbroken, still reeling from her daughter’s murder.

Noonan’s Kelly is just as fractured. Though she only spent a few months with Tracy (Jennifer Pearce, who appears in flashback), the memory clings to her like a skin she’s unwilling to shed. And rather than bristling at Elizabeth’s anger, she agrees with it. All things considered, she’d rather be dead than live with the pain.

The characters are worlds apart in terms of political and moral perspectives, but emotionally, their scars are the same. And it’s the give-and-take between blame and guilt and the growing awareness that they live in the same vacuum that supplies Sans Merci with the dramatic ballast necessary to keep the play afloat.

It does bog down at times, though. There is almost too much reliance on quoted passages from Keats, and Jill Johnson’s cluttered direction tends to obscure, rather than amplify, Adams’ words. For instance, the play’s most potentially arresting emotional moment—Elizabeth’s inspection of the items in Tracy’s backpack—is diluted by poor staging: Elizabeth sits in a weak position of the stage, making it hard to see what she’s doing, and Kelly constantly moves, drawing focus away from what’s truly important in the moment. But nothing can dilute the powerful closing moments, which contain a monologue from the dead that rivals Greek tragedy in its explosive power.

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