One of the ironies in Jennifer Lane’s play “Harlowe” is that for its generous depth of feeling, its central character is one who cannot feel anything.
As portrayed by Leah Sessa in the show’s world premiere at FAU’s Theatre Lab beginning this weekend, the 20-something Harlowe is so psychologically—so neurologically—damaged by a lingering trauma that she’s become literally numb to the world. As she says in her opening monologue, “my flesh does not recognize sensation. My nerves are sleeping and all my bones are strangers. My fingers don’t know my knuckles, don’t know my hands, don’t know my wrists, don’t know my forearms, elbows, shoulder blades. I am an assemblage of unrelated parts.”
Embodying this sense of what might be called body unawareness, and of the emotional vacancy that comes along with it, proved one of a handful of challenges for Sessa. “Some of the scenes that Jennifer has written evoke a natural emotional response from me,” Sessa says. “They would make me cry just from the silent reading of them in my room. But Harlowe is closed off from those ‘normal’ human emotions. So sometimes I’d be doing a scene, and too much of Leah’s emotions would sneak in and I’d have to be reminded this is a girl who is numb to life.
“But what I love about being an actor is getting to bring someone else to life while also finding part of myself within them,” she adds. “This play deals with grief and healing. We all have dealt with some form of grief in our life, whether it be a death of someone we love or the loss of a relationship. And I’m able to connect with Harlowe in where she is in her stage of grieving.”
Which isn’t to say Lane’s play is some kind of melancholy dirge—for from it. It’s essentially a family dramedy, drawing humor from conflict and dysfunction, as many of the great plays do. Sessa is surrounded by Katherine C. McDonald as her older sister Reese, Elijah Moseley as their teenage brother Davis and Michael Gioia as their father Edwin. Jordon Armstrong plays Scott, a neighbor with romantic entanglements to both Harlowe and Reese. All bring their own emotional baggage, which intersects with Harlowe’s as they fumble toward resolution.
“This is a family that has suffered a trauma,” says Matt Stabile, who is directing the production for Theatre Lab. “And that trauma is ever-present in their lives. But it doesn’t get talked about—and I think that is pretty common in families. They all know it is there. They all know they are living it. And so they don’t always recognize the need to talk about it. Like, if the sky is blue, do we need to go around talking about the blue sky? It just is.”
Much of the language in Lane’s play reads in a vaunted way, and it’s rife with subtext. As Stabile says, “Jenny has this incredible ability to write poetry that sounds like actual conversation.” Her play also presents demands on both producers and actors. On the design side, much of the action takes place in a full bathtub in Harlowe’s family’s house. Sessa says the tub, for Harlowe, is a place of “healing, self-discovery and meditation.”
Having real water is notoriously difficult to pull off onstage, but set designer Michael McClain has not met a challenge he hasn’t embraced. As Stabile adds, “It might actually help that our theatre was once a food court—we are working out of what was once a frozen yogurt stand—so some of the necessary stuff was kind of already there just waiting to be modified.
“But we are always trying to stretch what we can do in the space. We have consistent conversations about what the audience has ‘already seen’ and what we can do to surprise them this time. I think water is going to be one of those things.”
Then there’s the fact that Sessa is required to be nude when she emerges from the bathtub, an aspect of the show that is featured in its teaser trailer and marketing materials. It’s not the only aspect of private life the play explores in front of an audience: Characters engage in sexual acts and use the bathroom, elements of the human experience that are still rarely shown onstage.
“The nudity and adult themes in the production are not about sex appeal,” Stabile says. “They are about vulnerability. And I think they are essential to the piece working. You are being allowed in on some of the most intimate and vulnerable moments in these people’s lives—I think that helps to trigger empathy.”
As Sessa reminds us, this production isn’t the first time she’s pushed her body and her voice to meet a theatre’s demands. “I have jump roped while singing, roller-skated, sang ‘Not Getting Married Today’ in two different shows, danced in stilettos, sang terrifying high notes, and this, I must say, has absolutely been one of the most challenging and rewarding shows I’ve ever been in,” she says. “I have (for lack of a better word) never been so naked on stage, not only emotionally but physically. I’m blessed to have Matt Stabile directing this show and my amazing, supportive cast members. Matt has made sure I’m comfortable every step of the way and has taken very intimate moments … and kept them very classy.”
As for the audience, those unprepared for the show’s adult themes should be forewarned. At least a modicum of gasps and murmurs is to be expected. “We have had this script in mind for a while and, if I’m being completely honest, I think we sat on it until we felt the audience was prepared,” Stabile says, adding, “I think our audience is a brave audience—they are already committing to a theatre doing new work, where they won’t recognize titles and have no advance guarantee that they will ‘like’ the play.
“We counteract that by making a sacred promise that they will always enjoy the experience. We will do high-quality work that will resonate with them in some way—and we will make sure they feel welcome and cared for as part of our community. That’s our job.”
“Harlowe” runs through April 14 at Theatre Lab at FAU, 777 Glades Road, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $35. Call 561/297-6124 or visit fauevents.com.