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Review: Humana Festival's 'Marginal Loss' Shows A Complex Portrayal Of Grief

Ted Koch, Carla Duren, Jessica Wortham, and Nancy Sun in MARGINAL LOSS by Deborah Stein, 2018 Humana Festival - 2. Photo by Dana Rogers._preview
Dana Rogers
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Grief is a common human experience, but we continually underestimate its impact. It is not just something to suffer through or survive; it has the ability to change us so that the world might seem an entirely different place than it was before the loss of loved ones.

Deborah Stein’s Marginal Loss is about the surviving employees of a fictional investment firm, Lippman Kennedy, which had been based near the top of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. Barely two days after the terrorist attack, three employees have set up an ad hoc office in a company storage facility in New Jersey. With one aging desktop computer using a dial up connection (the first sounds we hear) and a landline, they set out to get the business back up and running even before there has been a full accounting of personnel lost in the collapse of the Twin Towers.

Allegra (Nancy Sun) and John (Ted Koch) already know each other, but an eager young temp worker named Margaret (Carla Duren) has no experience with financial trading whatsoever. She does have a connection to the company through her boyfriend, who is among those unaccounted for. Cathy (Jessica Wortham) arrives on the second day; she’s a more senior executive who has taken nominal charge of the company.

Stein’s script details the mechanics of financial trading, managing to make sense of it enough to create the necessary sense of urgency without overburdening the audience. It underscores the difficulty facing this small crew as they attempt to handle millions of dollars in financial transactions with little more than their wits and ingenuity.

More importantly, the Lippman Kennedy employees are forced to place their grief on hold, which is, of course, impossible. The moral conflicts that arise as they proceed seem more an expression of that repressed emotion, and we witness in the actions of these four characters a range of coping mechanisms as each one grapples with the trauma.

Ted Koch and Nancy Sun effectively capture the business casual tone of mid-level financial officers, he older, more weary and rumpled, and her the younger, more polished and ambitious counterpoint. Carla Duren is appropriately naïve and ingenious as the temp. Jessica Wortham charges onto the stage with great, ferocious authority, all steel armor at first, before she reveals Cathy’s vulnerability.

Director Meredith McDonough makes the most of the space and silences in Stein’s text, setting a pace that is both leisurely and economical. In the most pronounced example, Allegra sits alone for an entire scene that plays in dreadful silence, yet the impact, established by the text but rendered in Nancy Sun’s anguished performance, is devastating.

Drew Boyce’s set design is broad, open, grey, and distinctly lacking in personality, a neutral void to highlight the pent-up emotions of the characters, and Stowe Nelson provides an evocative backdrop of sound from outside the building, punctuated by the occasional helicopter or emergency vehicle siren that echoes the recent tragedy and immediate aftermath.

In the end, Stein allows her people the room to cope with their grief in their own time and in their own way. Her story is based loosely on the actions of financial services firm Cantor Fitzgerald, which brought its business back to life in a similar fashion, and made a commitment to donating 25% of the next five year’s earnings to the families of the hundreds of its employees who perished on 9/11. 

Keith Waits is the Managing Editor of arts-louisville.com

Marginal Loss

March 6 - April 8, 2018.

Part of the 42nd Humana Festival of New American Plays