Stage review: 'Speed Queen' a gripping one-woman show
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In the house of celebrity are many mansions, from the truly talented to the Kardashians with plenty in between, like heinous criminals who keep the media busy.
Americans love those thieving, murdering, kinky lawbreakers, especially if they've been on the lam -- Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Charles Starkweather and his 14-year-old partner, Caril Ann Fugate, and Pretty Boy Floyd whose corpse was on public display in a Cadiz, Ohio, funeral home not far from Pittsburgh.
Novelist Stewart O'Nan's 1997 book "The Speed Queen" examined our fascination with criminals on the run in the first-person account of Marjorie, your average small-time addict and dealer criminal who, without thinking, finds herself a modern Bonnie Parker with lots of blood on her hands. And, like Parker, she has a problem separating right from wrong.
Enter actress Anne Stockton who's also a psychiatrist and, says her website, plays "mentally ill people" to train New York City police officers. Attracted by her background to the amoral Marjorie, Ms. Stockton reshaped Mr. O'Nan's novel into a movingly effective one-actor play.
The setup for the play is Marjorie's monologue into a tape recorder for author Stephen King. She's made a book deal with the horror-genre king to support her son Gainey who, as an infant in his car seat, witnessed Mom's killing spree, with help from dad Lamont, shot dead in the escape, and the couple's live-in lover, Natalie, who has written her own book and landed a spot on "Oprah."
Marjorie's not as fortunate. She didn't make a plea-bargain and now awaits execution in Oklahoma. She tries to answer Mr. King's probing questions until the phone rings to deliver the news on her last appeal.
After a slow start, Ms. Stockton in a prison jump suit warms to the role, finally embodying someone so deeply in denial about her actions that she concentrates on the trivial and mundane. I counted eight victims in Marjorie's account of her partners' burglary and killing, starting with an elderly couple who were set on fire while still alive.
While advising Mr. King on how best to tell her story, Marjorie blossoms into creator, producer, director and star of a "made-for-TV" true crime drama, losing all touch with the reality of what happened. Unaware of the ironies and self-deceptions -- aided by snorts of contraband cocaine hidden in a soda can -- Marjorie trips frequently to happier times with Lamont and Natalie, a handy way to block out the screams and blood of her victims.
Inspired by Mr. O'Nan's clever satire on America's celebrity culture and his guarded sympathy for his character, Ms. Stockton leaves us feeling guilty for reading those tabloids and rueful for Marjorie's lack of remorse and insight.
Directed by theater veteran Austin Pendleton, who, along with Stewart and wife Trudi O'Nan, watched Ms. Stockton's gripping performance Thursday night, "The Speed Queen" effectively reveals a side of the celebrity business that we need to pay close attention to.
First Published December 8, 2012 12:00 am