BEST FRIENDS Jaimie Schwartz’s Ross and James Herrera’s Martin.
Famous architect Martin (James Herrera), his wife Stevie (Christine Louise Marshall), and their gay teenage son Billy (Benedetto Robinson) are a highly and self-consciously cultured family. They paraphrase Shakespeare extemporaneously, one-up each other's vocabulary, and applaud each other's allusions with "Very good." So when confronted with the unthinkably uncivilized — Martin has fallen in love with, and is, yes, doing "all that" with, a goat — the family's first line of defense is its cultivation. For example: Does one more properly use the pronoun whom or which when the referent is not a human but a farm animal? But beneath the arch patter are profound emotions and ambiguities in Edward Albee's uncomfortably funny, provocative, and very dark The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company, under the direction of David Currier. This one, obviously, is not for the kids.
Martin does not particularly believe he has done anything "wrong," a perspective not shared by his best friend Ross (the excellently jocular Jaimie Schwartz), an erudite man's man to whom Martin first confesses. Ross promptly breaks the news to Stevie, who doesn't keep it from Billy. What follows, in their home of understated wealth and good taste (Stacey Koloski's fine design), details the family using what they have — their articulateness, rationality, and impeccably cultivated wits — to navigate the rim of a psychic abyss, a place beyond the clear-cut rules and morals of culture.
Herrera and Marshall fluently express the intelligence and strong mutual endearment of this couple, though early on in the crisis their banter sometimes lacks the vertiginousness of the precipice they tread. As time and their conversation progress, Marshall conveys Stevie's horror more and more disturbingly, looking nauseous and unsteady, and by the time she descends to wordless screams, her anguish is terrifyingly primal. Martin, the man who has brought her there, has a sympathetic bewilderment in Herrera's hands. Though I would like to see in him more signs of the latent need that led him to Sylvia in the first place, more of a sense of how his prolix culture has proven insufficient to this need (Sylvia's "guilelessness" is how he describes her allure, which is in a sense the opposite of clever cultivation), his performance is riveting as Martin finally realizes that the damage to his family is irrevocable.
As his son, who as a younger human being has less of culture's certainties than his mom, Robinson is outstanding, reeling between rage, fear, love, and Ross's own confused lapses from "normal." Robinson's reed-like frame and sensitivity, as his reactions shift, are arresting. And most impressive in this production is how powerfully all three family members convey the deep love that both binds and agonizes them.
Ultimately, The Goat is moving and frightening to the extent that it lets us understand and even empathize with its characters' longings and actions — that is, to the extent that any of us suddenly feel that given the right circumstances, we could be in their places. Mad Horse's production could take us a little closer to that edge, could slow down a little more to let us look hard and teeter. But it nonetheless succeeds in leaving us shaken, dizzy, and even nauseous. It reminds us of the limits of culture, that not everything in the psychic landscape can be easily cultivated.
Megan Grumbling can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE GOAT, OR WHO IS SYLVIA? | by Edward Albee | Directed by David Currier | Produced by Mad Horse Theatre Company | at Lucid Stage, in Portland | through February 6 | 207.899.3993