By John Lyle Belden
Wendy remembers a video rental place (remember those?) where the clerks kept putting the 1987 Streisand movie “Nuts” on the comedy shelves, and it definitely did not belong there.
While the courtroom drama, the original stage version of which is at Buck Creek Players, does have its moments of legal wit, and a defendant who deflects with “inappropriate humor,” this play is dead serious.
In a courtroom on the grounds of New York’s Bellevue Hospital in the winter of 1979, a hearing will determine if Claudia (played by Jenni White) is competent to stand trial for manslaughter. Her mother and stepfather (Miki Mathioudakis and Tim Latimer) are naturally concerned. Judge Murdoch (Ed Mobley) and prosecutor MacMillan (Dave Hoffman) are prepared for a fairly routine proceeding, with Dr. Roesnthal (Graham Brinklow) declaring the defendant unfit, and the state signing off on it. Officer Harry (Tracy Jones) is just biding time until the next smoke break.
But Claudia doesn’t believe she is “nuts,” and works with attorney Lewinsky (Michael Swinford), whose apparently disorganized manner makes him look out of his depth – until he starts asking some surprisingly probing questions.
White masterfully portrays the easily underestimated Claudia, as she plays into her opponents’ assumptions until the moment she can turn the tables. Still, she’s hardly in control. Her parents represent past pain that she never reconciled, and her stepfather being put on the stand rips those wounds back open.
Mathioudakis and Latimer tackle difficult roles professionally, she a chameleon whose colors shift from cool to hot as events unfold, he the type of person you at first mistrust because he’s rich, but then find he’s far worse than anyone suspects.
Hoffman plays it competent but stiff, while Swinford as the legal wild card is like a lithe, crafty fox. Mobley is great at crusty characters, and is in charge here. Brinklow is a study in confident arrogance. Jones is subtly reassuring, an unlikely friend. Completing the cast, Adrienne Reiswerg ably plays the court recorder, who, at the play’s close, gets in the last word.
The portrayal of mental healthcare in the late 70s seems so long ago, it’s easy to forget that only a few decades have passed, and much of the stigma – of mental illness, of sex work, and of women’s issues – still remains. And it’s further shocking how the nature of the childhood abuse Claudia suffered becomes almost a footnote in this case. There would be more attention paid today, but, honestly, how much?
Yes, “Nuts” is not a comedy, but it’s kinda funny how its issues are still resonant today.
One weekend of performances remain, Friday through Sunday, Oct. 6-8, at Buck Creek Playhouse, 11150 Southeast Ave. (Acton Road exit off I-74). Call 317-862-2270 or visit www.BuckCreekPlayers.com.