Playwright: Arthur M. Jolly. At: Babes with Blades Theatre Company at the Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. Tickets: 773-904-0391; www.babeswithblades.org; $20. Runs through: May 5
When the Babes with Blades (BWB) stage combat troupe launched its Joining Sword and Pen competition in 2005, skeptical audiences anticipated wholesome girlish romps on the order of the March sisters' Christmas pageant. No one suspected that six years later, the contest prize would go to a grim psychological drama (recently named a semifinalist at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwrights Conference) with almost no fights in it at all.
Sword & Pen's agenda proposes a play written around a specified visual image of females waging battle against one anotherin this instance, an eerily grotesque painting by Victoria Szilagyi depicting two young women grappling amid the squalor of a moonlit municipal junkyard. Arthur M. Jolly's interpretation of this enigmatic scene invokes a pair of long-estranged siblings reunited at their mother's funeral. Becky, perversely clad for the occasion in a red dress, is the prodigal who fled home for a drifter's unstable life. Diane is the virtuous daughter who postponed her own career to care for their ailing parent. Just before dying, we learn, this matriarch mailed a letter to her long-lost offspring. The embittered Becky discarded it, unopened, spurring the search through piles of rotting debris.
The metaphor of objects abandoned and forgotten by their owners is not lost on the excavators. Gradually, it emerges that Mama Dearestwhether due to illness or natural bad temperwas an abusive harpy in her final years, selfishly exacerbating sororal rivalries so that Becky, now struggling to make a new start, suffers under the guilt heaped upon her by the resentful Diane. While sometimes erupting into the physical violence born of childhood squabbles, now escalated to homicidal proportions with the ready availability of potentially lethal weapons, the conflict is mostly expressed verbally, progressing through layers of self-discovery as nightfall and the bulldozers draw ever nearer.
Sustaining this level of emotional intensity in the Side Project's close quarters over 80 minutes of wrestling with mountains of slippery detritusreplicated by the technical team with an accuracy to discourage the tactually curiousdemands a degree of stamina. Said stamina led to the double-casting of the show, Jennifer L. Mickelson and Elizabeth MacDougald, under the direction of Delia Ford, alternating in repertory with Alison Dornheggen and Megan Schemmel, the latter of whom (on the night that I attended) delivered riveting, inseverably connected performances to elevate the BWB company to the artistic legitimacy too long denied it by purists.