“Bethany” by Laura Marks at ACT

Here’s a play about the grievous impact that the recent recession had, specifically on many middle class Americans, especially the single moms. It focuses on lives of not so quiet desperation, lives where loss of dignity can be accompanied by loss of integrity, where loss of financial security often equals loss of civility. It’s a powerful subject in a not entirely successful play.

The Bethany of the title is the child never seen, the daughter taken away by the state from Crystal (Emily Chisholm), the homeless central character who is trying desperately to prove to the authorities that she can be entrusted with the welfare of her little girl. She works unsuccessfully as a car salesman in a dealership for the equally doomed Saturn and squats in a repossessed home already occupied by a clearly deranged man with violent tendencies (played with ferocious intensity by Darragh Kennan).

Into the agency comes Charlie, a New Age Elmer Gantry, offering motivational pap instead of Christian rhetoric. Richard Ziman plays him with a smarmy smile and a booming voice that commands the stage the way old-time preachers commanded the tent revivals. He toys with her, convincing her that he will buy the car, but wait not today. Back he comes again and again, reeling her in, raising her hopes.

Director John Langs and his production team have incorporated a number of clever staging devices here. This is not an easy play to perform in the round, but with startling musical and lighting effects they make it work.

What didn’t work for me were some of the assumptions of the play. Would even the most desperate woman move into a house inhabited by a psychotic, and live there alone with him? And how can Crystal be so dumb as not to recognize that it isn’t a car Charlie wants. He recognizes her vulnerability and takes advantage of it. The playwright doesn’t present Crystal as stupid. Or is she saying that any woman will sell her body if she has a good enough reason? I don’t buy that.

The impact of the recession was devastating for many, and many are still suffering economically. Noble intent here, less than successful vehicle for its presentation.

Through May 4 at ACT, 700 Union St., Seattle, (206 292-7676 or acttheatre.org)

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