'Asking Questions' sheds light on family secrets

Nancy Murray's new play, "Asking Questions," is a Baltimore Playwrights Festival entry that will have you awaiting some crucial answers at Fells Point Corner Theatre.

Murray's tightly scripted one-act is about family secrets.

A relatively young-looking mother, Meg (Shanna Babbidge), must have been a teen-ager when she had her now-15-year-old daughter, Mandi (Julia Pickens). The tense relationship between mother and daughter in this single-parent household is now heightened by Meg's refusal to have a full discussion about the status of her husband.

Mandi is told that he's dead, but it's such a terse account that the audience shares the girl's suspicion that there may be more to it.

The playwright opens up the discussion by giving Meg a friend in whom she can confide, Doug (Andrew Syropoulos), and also providing Mandi with a teen pal to whom she can complain, Jen (Erin Boots). These voices provide enough different vantage points to help you make up your own mind as to what's going on in this household.

Although the play contains more extremely brief scenes than it probably needs, these alternating configurations of characters do manage to advance our own level of awareness.

When two additional plot-advancing characters, Mark (Kevin Griffin Moreno) and Young Man (Gary Williams), are added to the mix, we pretty much learn what we need to know about this particular family.

Director Peter Davis oversees a rambunctious production in which family squabbles come across loud and clear. If anything, the fully engaged actors sometimes might want to tone it down a little. After all, anger can be expressed in ways other than shouting.

The extroverted acting may be connected to the dubious conceptual decision to have some of the early domestic fights accompanied by recorded laughter of the sort associated with a television sitcom. It's an odd tactic. This is a serious play whose darkly comic elements aren't extreme enough to warrant the self-consciously surreal laugh track. Maybe the writer and director realize this, too, because that canned laughter totally disappears from later scenes.

Another puzzling creative strategy involves backing the functional domestic set with three large abstract paintings by Heather Joi. The biomorphic designs in these paintings don't seem to connect in any meaningful way to the play, and so the assertive imagery seems mildly distracting.

It's a measure of the play's success that doubts about its acting, rhetorical tone and staging aren't enough to keep us from wanting to learn this family's secrets.

"Asking Questions" runs weekends through Aug. 28 at Fells Point Corner Theatre, at 251 S. Ann St., in Baltimore. Performances are Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 7 p.m.; there is no show on Aug. 19. Tickets are $12 general. Call 410-276-7837 or go to http://www.fpct.org.

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