As theatrical metaphors go, the equating of psychological ‘baggage’ to physical suitcases is one of the more straight-forward examples, yet that is not to decry the effectiveness or necessary bluntness of the images thus created by the young Stage 32 company. Key to their exploration of Vermont’s foster care system in general,
Thought-provoking and eye-opening in no small measure but, in terms of driving change, perhaps we are too generously let off the hook and remain, heartbreakingly, all too passive.
The cast creates a busy, swirling environment from the very moment we step into the space as they roam around, apparently lost; we must almost brush shoulders with them as we find our seats. This is deliberately alienating – for a few early moments it is we who are the unknown entities in a system of which we have no knowledge, it is we who are scrutinised by dozens of pairs of eyes. Having felt this way so soon, our disposition towards sympathy for the situations of the characters is set.
There are some cleverly constructed images throughout the piece which stick in the mind. We have the lone violin player whose occasional slips remind us that things do go wrong, the faceless fosterers whose good intentions may be invisible to the children they meet, characters almost hidden by bags, bags which only one character has the capacity to lift, balloons which crudely suggest simply ‘letting go’ – each image adds to the previous ones to gradually enforce the company’s viewpoint on personal difficulties.
Structurally akin to A Chorus Line, the emotional heart of Baggage lies within the honestly drawn snapshots of character. Dealing with difficult themes, the cast embraces the challenge and there are some genuinely poignant moments. Amongst many other high points, Tillie Quattrone’s portrayal of a conflicted mother is tragic in her ultimately futile attempts to cling on to her ‘baggage’, whereas Marissa Mattogno as Charlotte recounts her tale with clarity and spark. Aven Williams’ surly Kelley says little but is symbolic of much thanks to her focused performance.
Yes, the piece is at times a little didactic and occasionally strays into oversentimentality. The greatest missed opportunity here though is in the releasing of the audience from those initial moments of discomfort. We become relaxed in our expectation of the continuation of the soon established structure of personal account after personal account – though each is certainly told uniquely and with an array of theatrical tools. Thought-provoking and eye-opening in no small measure but, in terms of driving change, perhaps we are too generously let off the hook and remain, heartbreakingly, all too passive.