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Unseen Deserves to Be Seen

Identity and integrity figure large in this Dignity Players’ showing that addresses the masks we hide behind.

Thurston Cobb as the artist Jonathan Waxman and Shirley Panek as the interviewer Grete.

What is truth: fixed standard or fluid interpretation? Is a visionary artist an outsider or an insider? Is an expat a pioneer or a coward? Is a fist perhaps just a hand? Is an ex-lover ever a friend? These are just a few of the themes in Donald Margulies’ 1992 Obie Award-winning play, Sight Unseen, a provocative and entertaining look at an artistic superstar and the forces that shape him.
    The themes of identity and integrity figure large in this show, the first in Dignity Players’ 2011 season addressing the masks we hide behind.
    The New York artist in question, Jonathan Waxman (Thurston Cobb), calls himself a visionary of truth. Yet his moral spyglass is foggy where his professional reputation is concerned. Thus his pilgrimage to the Cotswolds home of his collegiate muse, Patricia (Jamie Erin Miller), the sacrificial shiksa who treasures his seminal masterpiece: her nude portrait he painted when they were young and in love. Her one link to a past rich in romance and dreams is his new obsession, a must-have for his London exhibit. Except he’s too cowardly to admit it. So he arrives using the ruse of a social call, after 15 years of silence, which is awkward enough. Add to the mix her jealous and conservative husband, Nick (Jeff Sprague), and the atmosphere is toxic.
    The story hopscotches backward and forward through the threesome’s most revelatory moments: in kitchens, bedrooms and studios where they lay their secrets bare by force, accident and conviction. Through it all, the public scrutiny of Jonathan’s work is voiced by Grete (Shirley Panek), a German uber-intellect, critic and masterful interviewer who insists on examining his most controversial works in light of his Jewish heritage. Neither acknowledges their ethnicity as a defining characteristic of their personality, but it separates them like a Ghetto wall.
    Cobb is convincing as the insecure idol, the guilty Jew turned bad boy, and he leaves us wondering if he ever really did love Patty, which makes her pain all the more poignant. Miller shows a great range of emotion, from near-hostile hostess to distraught, spurned lover. A former dilettante in frumpy brown, this romantic in the assumed mantle of practicality is trapped in a boring marriage. You can’t help but side with her from the first pre-visit jitters.
     In contrast, Sprague’s Nick, Patty’s husband, must be the most insulting prig in the British Isles. With a terrific scowl and sadistic, dry humor, he humbles their honored guest with the best zingers in the show, delivered with the sting of May sleet on the moors. His honest acknowledgment of his own short-comings, though, is oddly endearing, and he grew to be my favorite character. Panek is a natural with both accents and subtle put-downs, exuding a calm confidence that cannot be taught.
    As with most Dignity productions, the set and special effects are minimal but functional. It’s more the substance that matters, and for a serious play, there is a surprising amount of trans-Atlantic humor about everything from cooking to patriotism and circumcision to sex. Jonathan and Nick’s debate on art vs. pornography is worth the price of admission alone. Sight Unseen deserves to be widely seen and enjoyed in this artist-friendly community.
    All together, it’s so well executed you won’t believe it was chosen as a last minute replacement for another show, God of Carnage, using the cast and production staff already in place.

Director & costumers: Mary Fawcett Watko. Production manager and sound designer: Theresa Riffle.
Playing thru Mar. 12, at 8pm Th-Sa; 3pm Su at Unitarian Universalist Church, 333 DuBois Rd. Annapolis. $20 with discounts; rsvp; 410-266-8044 x127.