Review: Though Politically Resonant, ‘Wellesley Girl’ Stays Flat
The year is 2465. America has been reduced to a few walled-in New England towns whose residents live comfortably within the routine of their confines — that is, until a mysterious army camps at the border.
Despite its being set 449 years in the future, politics hasn’t changed much in "Wellesley Girl," a new work by playwright Brendan Pelsue that debuted at the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre on March 18.
Garth (Rachel Leslie), the chief executive of the towns, wants to send an emissary to investigate and potentially make peace. Scott (Jeff Biehl), an outspoken citizen — whose character invokes a Trump-esque bravado — thinks this is a ridiculous idea and wants to plan an attack. Max (Pun Bandhu), a member of Congress and Garth’s ex-boyfriend, is uncertain how he wants to vote on these issues, while his wife Marie (Kelly McAndrew) just wishes he would vote.
Through a series of increasingly complex moves, the town is faced with a final decision: Leave everything they know behind or surrender to the army and become members of its labor camp. The first option is controversial because years before, the town of Wellesley chose to secede and strike out on its own but soon discovered the water outside the walls was toxic.
This plot, which Pelsue deftly establishes, resonates amid America’s current election cycle.
Yet to propel audiences through the political mire, Pelsue relies too heavily on stereotypes and stock characters — the blustering politician, the detached Supreme Court justice, the outspoken activist — most of whom are not fully developed over the course of the production.
In doses, it works well. For example, RJ, played by the talented Phillip Taratula, is charming as an eager and clueless diplomat (complete with a miniature American flag).
But for a plot with such nuance, the characters are too cut-and-dried, leaving “Wellesley Girl” feeling promising but flat.
There is one notable, unexpected exception: Hank, Garth’s robot husband. While an android may not seem like the logical candidate for major personal development and insight, Pelsue wrote this character with a tact and sensitivity that supersedes cliché and is well-matched by actor Barney O’Hanlon’s expert execution. The evolution is subtle but effective, such as the linguistic development from “It’s like we’re in love,” to “I love you,” when he is speaking to Garth.
Another unexpected high note was the production’s set design. Scenic designer Annie Smart strikes a perfect blend between New England homeliness and minimalism that helps ground the audience while leaving room for the quickly rotating scenes.
Some sections of “Wellesley Girl” are plagued by loose ends where Pelsue could have gone deeper and tied things up tighter. I wanted deeper exploration of the triangle of feelings between Garth, Marie and Max. And I wanted to know more about how the residents feel toward Hank, as it was runoff from the MIT robotics laboratories that poisoned their water supply.
There were also segments in need of pruning, notably the final scene featuring Mick and Donnie (Esaú Mora and Austin Blunk). There’s a lot going on: from one-liners with no punchline (“I’d jack off if you weren’t my brother”) to memories of their prior life, to a scenario that is overtly reminiscent of their parents in which one brother asks the other to kill him if the invaders track them down because he wants to choose how he dies.
While one of the strengths of this play is its display of how complex uncertainty can be, this meandering scene does not contribute to that end.
That said, “Wellesley Girl” is a production that blends humor and a deeper message well, and with some tweaks it can reach its full potential as contemporary political commentary.