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Eat Your Heart Out

Critics' pick
1/4
Photograph: Joe Mazza
Andrew Goetten and Anne Joy in Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
2/4
Photograph: Joe Mazza
Katherine Keberlein and Anne Joy in Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
3/4
Photograph: Joe Mazza
Michael Szeles, Katherine Keberlein and Anne Joy in Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble
4/4
Photograph: Joe Mazza
Anne Joy in Eat Your Heart Out at Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble. By Courtney Baron. Dir. Hallie Gordon. With ensemble cast. 1hr 30mins; no intermission.

Theater review by Oliver Sava

During a typically tense conversation with her mother, Nance (Katherine Keberlein), overweight teenager Evie (Anne Joy) says, “High school is the apocalypse.” The phrase is indicative of the mindset that motivates each character in Courtney Baron’s 2012 drama, which features a cast of six people dealing with personal issues so profound that they may as well be facing the end of the world.

Evie is struggling with bullying at school, a best friend that she loves unrequitedly, and a slender mother who doesn’t quite understand what she’s going through. It’s the standard teen drama, and the play occupies some clichéd territory at the start, but it becomes far more complex as the production continues and the actors delve deeper into the characters. The situations are familiar, but director Hallie Gordon and her sharp performers capture the characters' extreme emotional investment in these events, giving the production an outstanding sense of urgency, especially in the second half.

Evie’s friend Colin (a perfectly angsty Andrew Goetten) is putting all his hopes of escaping his sad Pasadena home in a long-distance relationship with a girl on the other side of the country, giving the absent Shawna the attention that Evie desperately needs to feel good about herself. Joy and Goetten do exceptional work navigating the subtext of their scenes, which are dominated by the awkwardness of two teenagers trying to hide romantic feelings to maintain a platonic friendship.

Evie is far more comfortable talking to Colin than her mother, but there’s still tension between the two teens, which largely stems from Evie’s low self-esteem. Joy’s performance is full of pain and fear, a combination that forces Evie to be aggressive with the people she cares about most because she thinks she’s always being attacked. All that stress eventually affects Evie’s well-being, and Joy exhibits heartbreaking levels of vulnerability in the play’s final moments.

Social worker Nance is forced to confront the truth about her mothering when she conducts an interview with a couple looking to adopt a child, which unfortunately occurs right before a Match.com meet-up with Tom (Charlie Strater), a man who is far too nice to deal with an emotional breakdown on a first date. Keberlein, who took home a Jeff Award this week for her performance in Oracle Theatre’s The Mother, delivers a beautifully textured performance as a single mother at the end of her rope, aided by a script that builds smoothly and quickly to a rousing climax.

Baron’s script cycles through plot threads, and Regina Garcia’s set makes those transitions very slick by splitting the space into four separate areas. The energy intensifies as the stories begin to intersect, and the production takes off when Nance arrives at the home of Alice (Mary Cross) and Gabe (Michael Szeles), who desperately want to start a family but collapse under the pressure of the interview and their expectations of what Nance wants to hear. Cross and Szeles are the primary source of humor in the piece, and they have impeccable comic timing that suggests many years of hilarious banter between the married couple.

The comedy in the home interview scenes makes the more dramatic moments hit with gut-wrenching impact. Just like everyone else in this cast, Alice and Gabe are facing a personal apocalypse, but there’s still hope. The end of Baron’s play is its greatest triumph, bringing all the storylines together without resorting to overly convenient plot contrivances. Baron paves the way to a poignant finale without drawing attention to the construction, and the performers navigate the tricky emotional currents of the script to reach that finish line with confidence and grace.

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