Two dolls — one made of rubber with brightly colored clothes and hair, the other a plain, carved piece of wood — become the symbols of the vast gap of misunderstanding between wealthy Western nations and the poverty of the developing world. “Peggy Pickit Sees the Face of God” does not completely succeed in its effort to focus on individuals rather than ideals, but the Apollinaire Theatre Company’s nuanced production finds the pressure points of comedy and tragedy in this disconcerting satire.
Carol (Danielle Fauteux Jacques) and Martin (Mauro Canepa) have just returned from six years in some unnamed country providing medical care to patients struggling with poverty and disease. They have reunited at the home of old friends Liz (Becca A. Lewis) and Frank (David Anderson), who are also in the medical profession but have taken a different path, spending the last six years buying a comfortable home, and having a child. As the wine flows freely, the two couples spend the evening in a kind of circle dance, jealous of what the other has experienced while trying to find some reassurance for the choices they have made.
Playwright Roland Schimmelpfennig bends the cliché of the drunken dinner party by adding a cinematic device that allows individual characters to address the audience with their perspective, while the rest of the action freezes. Under director Megan Sandberg-Zakian’s firm hand, the action unfolds with the pace of steady, even breaths. The two couples audibly inhale in unison as the awkward small talk of the dinner party unfolds, and then stop, holding their collective breaths as one of the quartet steps out of the scene to address the audience. Then the last part of the previous scene is replayed, giving the impression that everyone needs to take a deep breath and readjust their mask of social graces before another nugget of horrifying truth is revealed. Frank’s determination to keep an emotional distance manifests itself in his playing of a Beach Boys tune, while Martin can’t shake the harrowing memory of a doomed woman he left behind.
Carol and Martin have brought the carved wooded doll as a gift for Liz and Frank’s young child, but the simple gift begins to dominate the conversation in unexpected ways. Picking up their own daughter’s Polly Pickit doll, Liz brags about the letter their 5-year-old has written to a young girl in Carol and Martin’s care to whom Liz and Frank have been sending financial support. In a goofy attempt to imagine what a conversation between the two girls might be like, Liz holds up both dolls and provides voices for each, and Lewis’s performance is both charming and a little creepy.
Although all four actors are remarkably comfortable with the characters and Schimmelpfennig’s inventive stop-action structure, Lewis, a gifted comic actress, is a standout. At first, she comically displays Liz’s shallow attitude about her own daughter’s brilliance, but when she allows the realization of the fate of the other little girl to wash over her, Lewis’s reaction is much more effective than the playwright’s dialogue.
Schimmelpfennig can’t quite connect the dots between his boozy dinner party and the personal impact of poverty and disease, but Lewis’s performance and Sandberg-Zakian’s direction make this sharp, smart production by the Apollinaire Theatre Company better than the script itself.