Is there a disconnect between what critics and audiences see when they attend a play? Often there is. John Olive's Standing on My Knees, which is currently being presented by the Orange Girls, might be a case in point. When this drama opened in 1982 at New York's Manhattan Theater Club, critics tended to dismiss it as ineffectual. Yet 25 years later the play continues to be staged at universities and at community and regional theaters. So it must have something that touches viewers' emotions, something intangible that perhaps evaporates if you scrutinize the script too carefully.
The plot concerns the efforts by Catherine, a poet who is being treated for schizophrenia, to restore order to her life in a manner that will not erode her creativity. Surely that's an involving premise. But Olive's approach to the story is frustratingly vague. This is one of those plays in which no one has a last name. Catherine is a poet, yet we never see her so much as pick up a pen. The evening's most dramatic revelation occurs offstage. Such dramatic lapses are symptomatic of the play's larger malady: its steadfast refusal to treat its own harrowing subject matter with the specificity and seriousness that this brain disease merits.
The evening begins with enormous promise. As Catherine, Meghan Maguire appears in an ill-fitting black sweater barely held together by a lonely, overworked button that seems ready to pop off at any second. What an effective visual this is for Catherine's pressured state of mind. When she meets with her publisher (Michelle Hand, who, as she did last year in the New Jewish production of From Door to Door, succeeds in making more of her character than is actually there), Catherine finds herself assaulted by words. It's not the content that hurts. Rather, Catherine is so vulnerable that the very notion of words hurling in her direction is scarifying. They might as well be daggers. Catherine tries to dodge them, but her Thorazine has slowed her down. In the early going, Maguire is wonderfully effective at revealing the still-unhealed nerve endings. Later in the evening there even occurs a connective moment when Catherine finds the fleeting strength to both defend and attack, and her ten extended fingers become knives.
But it's only a moment, because what begins as a character study all too soon devolves into a courtship. When that occurs, the Catherine we came to care for at the outset is essentially hung out to dry. Now the seesaw plot, not the schizophrenia, dictates her actions. It doesn't help that the play, directed by Riverfront Times reviewer Deanna Jent, has Catherine bouncing back and forth across the set design's three locales like a tennis ball. Now she's with her analyst (Ruth Heyman, who is often required to deliver her lines to a blank wall, which doesn't work); then she's racing across stage to the restaurant set. Is this really the most prudent use of the playing space?
As Robert, the investment counselor with whom Catherine has zilch in common, Nicolas Pavros is smooth and personable. But he doesn't have much to work with other than himself. We learn so little about Robert, I wouldn't have been surprised to discover that he was actually a figment of Catherine's twisted imagination. Nothing that unexpected occurs here. Instead the play builds to its obligatory theatrics.
Perhaps the very conventionality of Standing on My Knees accounts for its enduring success. It doesn't demand much from the viewer. It seems likely that the same theatergoers who respond to "issue" plays like Boy Gets Girl and The History of Bowling will have a terrific time here too. But a word of caution: Nothing good will come from peering too closely.