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In 'The Exceptionals,' Liminal Playhouse Mines Dicey Philosophical Territory

Mandi Elkins Hutchins, Heather Green, Katie Graviss Bechtler and Eliot Zellers, photo, John Rectenwald
John Rectenwald

The Liminal Playhouse’s “The Exceptionals” sees Liminal diving once again into very dicey philosophical territory, mining that territory for whatever humanity can be found there, and then emerging without ever taking a side on any moral quandaries contained in the plot or story.

In “The Exceptionals,” directed by Liminal’s artistic director Tony Prince from a script by Bob Clyman, that dicey moral territory comes from a sperm donation clinic, and the accompanying scientific experiment and exceptionally exclusive study for which some parents and children are chosen. The experiment only accepts parents with evidence of exceptional intelligence and pairs them with a donor of similarly exceptional intelligence.

Gwen (Heather Green), Allie (Katie Graviss Bechtler) and Tom (Eliot Zellers) are parents who were chosen and have stayed in the study for five years. They are now ready to embark on the next leg of the experiment: kindergarten. Claire (Mandi Hutchins) is the face of the study, just one scientist among many; the rest of which are never seen.

I do not believe the word “eugenics” is ever used within the script, but that’s what’s going on here, and the concept hovers over the onstage action. But instead of examining how the science of selective breeding attracts folks like Adolf Hitler, “The Exceptionals” strips away larger concerns to focus on how exceptionalism — or lack thereof — affects individuals.

Much of the action of the play springs from the seemingly instinctive competition between the moms, Gwen and Allie. Gwen is buttoned up and reserved, much closer to our shared cultural concept of a “smart” person, whereas Allie is loud, flustered, more prone to jokes and never seen without a bag or coffee cup from Dunkin' Donuts.

Green and Bechtler make the near immediate conflict between the two women feel real and justified. They both adroitly flip and flop between endearing and annoying, causing the audience’s goodwill to switch back and forth between the two characters multiple times in each scene.

Changing loyalties and affection is what “The Exceptionals” does best. Once the scientist Claire enters the scene, and then eventually Allie’s less-than-exceptional husband Tom shows up, it’s not only the audience’s affection that shifts; the characters’ loyalties change as well, as we watch the two families strive to get into the experiment’s uber exclusive private school. In some scenes Claire is on Gwen’s side, in others she seems to favor Allie. Or Tom might be fighting with Allie then defending Allie when she and Gwen are fighting. Even Gwen and Allie find themselves in cahoots for a moment here and there.

It makes for excellent drama, and all the actors do a good job of making these rapid transitions feel earned, but the script pushes credibility at times. Often, information is withheld or doled out to characters in convoluted ways in order to justify specific conflicts, twists and turns. Claire is most often the mechanism for information, and presumably as a scientist with eugenics on her mind she might also have some unorthodox methods of examining her subjects’ behavior. Still, it brought to mind the axiom “an audience will accept a plausible impossibility faster than an implausible possibility.”

The drama is engaging, and with sperm donation baked into the central action, “The Exceptionals” sets aside the thorny moral, social, and racial aspects of eugenics. But in doing so it brings a whiff of false equivalency, which is a touchy subject in a time when many people are still reeling from President Donald Trump’s infamous statement about the openly white supremacist protesters in Charlottesville: “You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides."

Of course, it doesn’t take someone with genius level genetic material to notice that while America isn’t run by Hitler or German Nazis, our country has plenty of its own methods for advancing white supremacy, with one of the most obvious being the prevalence of kids being sorted into good schools and struggling schools based on how “exceptional” they are — or how “exceptional” their parent’s bank account is.

Often, Liminal chooses scripts that purposefully throw a live grenade topic onto the table, and lets it explode on the audience. This time, I couldn’t decide if they were completely aware of the explosives they were tossing, or if they are subtly upping the ante on uncomfortable conversation.

False equivalency or no, the plot and discussion of exceptionalism overlays an honest and difficult exploration of who we love in our families, why, and what we are willing to do for those people we love.

Showtimes are September 5, 6 and 7 at 7:30 p.m. and September 8 at 2:00 p.m.  Ticket are $22 day of show, or $20 in advance at TheLiminalPlayhouse.org. All performances will be at The Henry Clay Theatre, 604 South Third Street, Louisville, KY.