The People in the Picture

Alright, readers, we try to be brutally honest with you, and in turn hope that you won't judge our show-going decisions too harshly, so here goes: Roundabout Theatre Company's The People in the Picture was on our summer show list simply because we enjoy keeping up with projects that formal Next to Normal cast members become involved in. In this case, we decided to take a trip to Studio 54 the second we learned that, not only had Louis Hobson been cast, but he would be playing another doctor. Win.

The People in the Picture was not quite one of this season's big hits; it only garnered a single (but well-deserved) Tony nod for Donna Murphy, and didn't sell well enough to extend its run past the originally announced closing date. In fact, Hillary and I saw the show the night before it closed. An announcement prior to curtain informed us that videographers were there to film the show's third-to-last performance for the Lincoln Center archives, which was cool and something that we'd never experienced before. (The things we'd do to get into those archives...) In the month that's gone by since that night, very few people that I've talked to saw this production, and even fewer admitted to enjoying it. But after Hillary and I cried our way through the second act, we were so glad to have been drawn to see the show, even by something as insignificant as the involvement of an ensemble member, because the only word that came to mind to describe what we had just seen was beautiful.

As the title suggests, The People in the Picture opens with a young girl, Jenny (played by the amazingly talented Rachel Resheff), examining an old picture and asking her grandmother, Bubbie (Donna Murphy), an enchanting story teller, about the people posed in it. The stage was framed by a giant, elaborate picture frame, and "the people in the picture" came to life to tell their stories to Jenny. As Jenny gradually learns how Bubbie's own story intertwines with the people in the picture (a cast of characters played by, among others, Alexander Gemignani, Christopher Innvar, Hal Robinson, and Chip Zien, who all belonged with Bubbie to an acting troup in pre-World-War-II Poland), Jenny also comes to know of the fractured past between her mother, Red (played by Nicole Parker) and Bubbie. (So Bubbie is Red's mother, and Red is Jenny's mother. Got it? Good.) All the while, the story transitioned scene-by-scene from past to present, flowing from Bubbie's current struggles to pass on her family heritage to Jenny, and back to Bubbie's younger days, when she was known to her friends as Raisel and struggled to survive against the impending Nazi regime. In act two, the large frame still encompassed the stage, but it was broken into pieces to represent the fractured family history of the characters. The floor of the stage was covered with some sort of reflective material that created a mirror effect with the frame, and combined with gentle lighting, the whole effect was just - wait for it - beautiful.

Donna Murphy, a legend in her own right, was absolutely brilliant. Her transition from Bubbie, her character as an old woman, to Raisel, her character as a young woman, was perfect. Although our seats from the last row of the mezzanine afforded a wonderful overall view of the staging, and in no way affected our ability to connect with Murphy's character, there were points where I wished we could have sat closer, just to see even more of the detail she put into differentiating the physicality between young and old. Another thoughtful detail that we appreciated: Murphy played Bubbie with a Yiddish accent, but Raisel without one. (As a young woman in Poland, Raisel would have been surrounded with people who spoke like herself; as an older woman living in America, her accent would have stood out.)

The young Resheff's credits prior to The People in the Picture include Shrek, Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins (so, like, every major recent show on Broadway that involves kids). While we've always felt hopelessly behind when comparing our lives to the accomplishments of, say, Jennifer Damiano or other young Broadway stars, we've now found a 10-year-old to make us feel even more pathetic! Seriously, though, we were so impressed by Ms. Resheff and fully expect to see her career continue to outpace her young age. Her chemistry with Nicole Parker was very believable and extremely touching, especially as the story approached an inevitable ending and the grandmother-mother-daughter relationships were woven to a beautiful and heartbreaking conclusion.

The show's score was not particularly memorable (read: we didn't come out of the show humming any tunes), but nonetheless quite wondrous. Its rhythm and sound were very clearly based in the tradition of Jewish music, alternating between delicate interludes and celebratory dances. (We felt that one slightly superflous song, late in act two, was included purely to give Donna Murphy another opportunity to make us cry - but who's complaining about that?) Shortly after the production closed, unofficial rumors of a cast recording were swirling around, and we truly hope that the score, with music by Mike Stoller and lyrics by Iris Rainer Dart, has been preserved for future listening purposes.

As it turns out, Mr. Hobson's part wasn't all that large (mostly ensemble, until his character, Dr. Goldblum, came out in act two and entertained us with many ironic Next to Normal references, including a line about how the main character "couldn't just walk out on her doctor," which had us in stitches at a very touching moment in the show). But our interest in a single actor resulted in an introduction to a show that, although not appreciated by many, was truly one of the most moving original stories we've seen in a while. While The People in the Picture perhaps never reached its potential, we reveled in the universal story it told of mothers and daughters; of forgiveness; and of the importance of memories, the past, and family.


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