Baltimore Playwright Review of KEEPING FAITH

Mike Giuliano, Published July 30, 2008

‘Faith’ is keeping Chesapeake busy A dumpy motel room in Arkansas seems like a prime location for criminal activity. Mark Scharf’s Keeping Faith immediately grabs your attention by making you wonder why a middle-aged couple kidnaps a young woman and keeps her captive in that motel. This Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry at Chesapeake Arts Center in Brooklyn Park holds your attention even after the reason for the kidnapping becomes clear. If anything, learning the young woman’s identity merely sets the stage for the complications ahead. The situation isn’t funny, of course, but then again maybe it is. Scharf’s comedy has near-slapstick proceedings that resemble what you’d expect in a Coen Brothers movie comedy about a botched crime, but the playwright also emphasizes the more serious underpinnings for all the silliness. Although the writing and acting in “Keeping Faith” don’t always sustain that delicate emotional balance, it’s generally a successful balancing act. One source of comedy here is that the bad guys aren’t so bad. They’re actually presented as deeply religious people. Ed is a balding middle-aged guy who looks like he belongs behind a desk; his wife, Jane, is so nervous and sweet that you wish you could have a nice talk with her and get her to calm down. They’re understandably agitated, though, because they enter the motel room carrying a young woman, Faith, who has rope around her hands and feet, a gag in her mouth, and a hood over her head. For much of the first act, Ed and Jane have an animated marital spat about the mess they’ve gotten themselves into. Faith, of course, is unable to talk and thus remains a mysterious bundle in a chair. If their predicament has a near-surreal feel, it’s partly because these seem to be decent people who’ve somehow gotten themselves into real trouble. Of course, the surreal feeling also owes something to the motel room’s decor, which includes the hilariously improbable hanging of a print of Edvard Munch’s The Scream over the bed. Yes, there will be a lot of screaming in this room. As Jane, Marianne Angelella provides much of the comic spark in the production directed by C.J. Crowe. Jane is so prim and proper and hygiene-conscious that she uses tissues to wipe down nearly every surface in that motel room. She seems bewildered by the whole situation, but passively obeys her more assertive husband’s orders. Jane is an angelic woman about to implode from the stress, and those character traits are expertly brought out by Angelella. Less satisfying is Patrick McPartlin’s performance as Ed, the husband who carries the kidnap plot and, indeed, carries the young woman into the motel room. He shares Jane’s ethical fervor, but Ed is an angrier person whose mildly vulgar language rattles Jane. McPartlin is physically appropriate for this role, but he has too many shaky line readings that seem like indecision on the part of the actor rather than the character. When she’s eventually untied and allowed to speak, Erin Tarpley as Faith makes up for lost time by spewing invective at her captors. The bottled fury in this performance ensures that things remain active rather than static in that motel room. There’s also another character in the play, but that character’s late appearance is why audiences stick around for the second act. Even when every character has appeared and every motive supposedly is revealed, “Keeping Faith” admirably keeps you slightly unbalanced in terms of why people do the things they do. This playwright, who is more known for drama than comedy, will have you anxiously laughing as Jane, Ed, Faith and that other person try to resolve a messy situation. Although some of Scharf’s individual jokes fall flat, the overall comic mood is deftly maintained. Your faith in his writing will be rewarded. “Keeping Faith” runs through Aug. 2 at Chesapeake Arts Center, at 194 Hammonds Lane in Brooklyn Park. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.