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Natural Life: Theater review by Sandy MacDonald
Seventeen seasons of Law & Order: SVU have inured us somewhat to the tropes of teen prostitution. Not to sound callous, but we pretty much know the trajectory: abused child, desperate runaway, hardened sex worker. Eduardo Ivan Lopez’s script, inspired by a 1996 Chicago case, covers all the bases while hopscotching chronologically.
We first meet the fictionalized Claire McGreely (Holly Heiser, committed and convincing) in media res, as she shoots her skeevy husband, Virgil (Joseph D. Giardina). The build-up follows in bits and pieces. Flashback to Claire, a mother while still a minor. She has a business plan of sorts: Marriage to Virgil, a middle-aged regular with peculiar proclivities, would ensure her a roof and a reprieve from Child Services.
The honeymoon is abortive, to say the least. Once Virgil gains the upper hand, he’s quick to use it—joining a parade of monsters and manipulators who have been running Claire’s life since she was five.
Her whole story spills out in the form of interjected interviews with a hard-nosed TV anchorwoman, Rita Hathaway (Anna Holbrook, pro enough to pass as the genuine article). During their first talk—only a few minutes into the pixilated narrative—Claire has landed on death row.
Fractured as it is, the story is easy to follow and moves along. The only perceptible drag is the need for frequent scene changes. The actors—who, when inactive, sit jury-like against the back wall—are called upon to rearrange the cubes, tables, and benches that constitute the bare-bones set. They perform this duty reverentially, almost in slo-mo. Screw on some wheels, advise them to get a move on, and the running time could be greatly reduced.
Even so, Heiser manages to sustain interest. Are Claire’s stories, which she dangles as exclusives, fabrications meant to elicit sympathy? Hathaway, having only heard these horrors impassively related, is never sure. After seeing many of the encounters reenacted, the audience might be more inclined toward credulity, especially after the murder scene gets replayed with dialogue entirely redacted in the defense (as opposed to prosecution) version. Whatever the facts of this particular case, there’s a deeper truth involving pervasive misogyny and exploitation that Natural Life pulls up into the light.—Sandy MacDonald
T. Schreiber Studio (Off-Off Broadway). By Eduardo Ivan Lopez. Directed by Jake Turner. With Holly Heiser, Anna Holbrook. Running time: 2hrs. One intermission.