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Head games

Thread unspools for low-frills suspense

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Ariadne's Thread by Marki Shalloe, now playing at Onstage Atlanta, breaks the mold of the typical therapy play. Dramas like Agnes of God or Equus depict therapists who unravel psychological mysteries while trying to cure their patients -- and redeem their own personal problems in the bargain. Ariadne's Thread, however, has more in common with the cat-and-mouse suspense of The Silence of the Lambs. And that's to the good.

Lambs' dynamic of sinister prisoner vs. wide-eyed interlocutor couldn't be more simple, but it suits stage drama perfectly. Ariadne's Thread takes to it so well, you wonder why new plays don't imitate the format more often, instead of, say, comedies about Southern women. Winner of the Onstage Atlanta Hometown Playwrights Series, Ariadne's Thread has room for improvement and gets a fairly rudimentary staging from Onstage Atlanta, but it builds to many moments of wicked fun.

Jesuit priest Father Aaron (Andy Green) ministers to the convicts in New York's Toombs Asylum in 1911. The priest has a scientific education -- he's versed in Freud's newfangled theories -- and he wants to both save his subjects' souls and heal their mental afflictions. He's not prepared for the challenge of Mae Jennings Bennett (Kristen Seymour), a New York socialite convicted of crimes initially kept secret from the audience. Seamus (DeWayne Morgan with a thick brogue), a guard, calls her a "devil woman" and warns the priest to be ready to perform an exorcism when he meets her.

Angela Tonn's staging makes Mae an arresting figure in the extended first scene, since Seymour keeps her back to the audience (and the other actors) nearly the entire time. She verbally spars with Father Aaron and occasionally raises a hand to gesture with long, sinuous fingers. When Seymour finally shows her face, she keeps her expression impassive but her eyes intense.

Mae takes great pleasure in making verbal sport of Father Aaron. When he assures her, "Your soul is safe," she replies "You're here for my body, then." Despite being the prisoner, Mae has most of the authority throughout the play, and sexually provokes the male characters. At one point, Seamus threatens her with a truncheon and smashes her belongings, but we're more nervous for him than for her.

Mae grows cooperative when Father Aaron suggests she be transferred to a more humane sanitarium. Shalloe provides novelistic details when Mae recounts her background, such as how she wore scandalous "harem trousers" at the charity ball where she met a hypnotist/astrologer who set her on her life of crime. In fact, Ariadne's Thread demands more of Mae's back story, feeling unnecessarily thin without it.

Given Green's mild, superficial reading of Father Aaron, the character is scarcely an equal combatant to Seymour's Mae. Green makes the priest such a naive gull that it's as if he's never dealt with another prisoner before. The actor barely hints at the intensity of the character's feelings, even though his obsession with Mae threatens his calling and changes his entire world-view.

Seymour may be forceful to a fault. She makes Mae a delightfully sinister figure, and at one point blows out a candle and moves forward, so the smoke curls devilishly around her face. But she's so eerily calm that Mae seems untouched by her predicament. Glimpses of human vulnerabilities would make the drama more compelling.

The title refers to the myth of the minotaur and the labyrinth, and maze imagery runs a bit too insistently throughout the play. Ariadne's Thread feels like an unfinished work, but Shalloe's premiere is certainly worth celebrating over some fava beans and a nice Chianti.

curt.holman@creativeloafing.com

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