Portland Playhouse is a brand-new theater company and like so many new companies, they found an unconventional space in which to mount their first production. A small staging area in a former Northeast Portland church is surrounded on three sides by comfy chairs and couches, lending the production an intimate, participatory feel that serves the ensemble well.
Gina Gionfriddo's script introduces the 14-year-old Justin (Tristyn Chipps), who, in the play's opening scenes, huddles on the couch, sick, while his mother, Ashley (Tonya Jone Miller), tries to talk to him about sex and drugs. Unfortunately, Ashley is a regular pot smoker whose sex advice boils down to "have sex with lots of people, but use protection." It's clear mother and son are close—so when Ashley is raped and killed by a schizophrenic homeless man her husband has hired to do the yardwork, Justin takes it pretty hard.
After his wife's death, her widower Alden (Sam Holloway) writes a novel about the murder, which leads to a job as the host of a true crime show about sex crimes. Justin finds the profiteering on his mother's death understandably distasteful, and so when it is announced that a women's shelter will be named in Ashley's honor, he hatches a plan to undo his father by showing a long-lost videotape that reveals what is mother was really like.
At one point, Justin reads a few lines of the Adrienne Rich poem "Diving into the Wreck," about a deep sea diver who is searching for "the wreck and not the story of the wreck." Playwright Gionfriddo goes to incredibly elaborate lengths to illustrate what Rich conveys in a few lines: Justin is concerned with his mother, and everyone else is concerned with what his mother represents (and the ways in which the media distorts and amplifies that representation). It's an affecting enough concept, but here it becomes mired in ancillary subplots and wacky supporting characters who detract from the play's ultimate themes.
For a new company and a locally untested director, though, Portland Playhouse handles the material well. They're still finding their footing (music and props need attention), but with a 2009 season of interesting scripts, and a refreshingly unpretentious attitude, Portland Playhouse is a promising addition to the local theater scene.