All under one roof in Signature Theatre’s ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes’

With its bumps, grinds, and inconvenient truths, Dani Stoller’s world premiere play has a kind of sweet poignancy.

Marian’s cheery Florida home – an over-decorated retirement nest she shares with second hubby Richard – has become a tropical haven for two adolescents in crisis. Richard’s pregnant niece Kitty, whose friends think she’s studying abroad, is hiding out there until her baby is born. Bobby, the traumatized boy next door, has taken up residence on Marian’s couch. Into this quirky and fragile human ecosystem barges Marian’s 30-something daughter Lee, ready to dump her own secrets on a mother who isn’t sure she wants the burden. What more could possibly be added to this human pile-up?

John Leslie Wolfe (Richard), Shanara Gabrielle (Lee), Susan Rome (Marian), John Austin (Bobby), and Jordan Slattery (Kitty) in Signature Theatre’s ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

With humor, insight, and empathy, Dani Stoller’s Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes, directed by Stevie Zimmerman, explores the steadily shifting relationships between the five characters temporarily co-existing under Marian’s sprawling roof. The play marks Signature Theatre’s sixtieth world premiere production and the twentieth premiere by a female playwright.

Played by Susan Rome, Marian is a whirling dervish of energy who fills her sunshiny days with pedicures and a book group whose taste bends toward New Age self-help guides. She is a generous, if controlling, spirit who leads the “family” in some hilarious bonding exercises that she reads directly from well-thumbed books. Especially funny is the group’s struggle to follow her guidance on how to exhale negative energy through their nether regions.

When faced one-on-one with her daughter’s demands to be listened to, however, Marian just can’t cope. There is too much emotional baggage in her way. In one of the play’s finest scenes, Marian attempts to patch things up with Lee (Shanara Gabrielle) over a mother-daughter shopping trip. Fueled by potent umbrella drinks, the outing ultimately fizzles. If your mother has ever told you that you’ve eaten her heart out, you’ll recognize Marian’s guilt-tripping gambit.

Bobby, played with great sensitivity by John Austin, comes of age in his tenderness for the vulnerable yet smart-mouthed Kitty (Jordan Slattery) and a raw encounter with Lee. The genial Richard (John Leslie Wolfe), an ideal foil for Marian, reaches out to Bobby with whiskey and a splendidly awkward attempt to reminisce about sexual awakening.

While they work well together as an ensemble, Zimmerman’s actors might mine more humor from Stoller’s excellent script. Some wry lines land flat and Marian, for all her manic energy, takes her matriarchal status a tad too seriously.

Susan Rome (Marian) and John Leslie Wolfe (Richard) in Signature Theatre’s ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes.’ Photo by Christopher Mueller.

Meghan Raham’s exceptionally wide set accommodates the characters’ complex interactions across the home’s entire downstairs. The set decoration rings true for anyone who has watched older couples move from colder climes, schlepping their formal mahogany dining sets south and mismatching them with Florida’s rattan easy chairs.

Andrew Cissna’s lighting design pinpoints the action to watch even as multiple characters inhabit the set’s several rooms. Debra Kim Sivigny’s wonderful costumes for Marian and Richard show just how completely they have embraced the tropical lifestyle. Kenny Neal’s well-chosen soft rock music score from the 1980s and ’90s washes the stage in nostalgia, the aural equivalent of Raham’s splendid pastel-y set.

For all its bumps, grinds, and inconvenient truths, Stoller’s play has a kind of sweet poignancy. Marian’s tribe is ephemeral. Bobby will soon go off to college, Kitty will have her baby, and Lee will face up to the mess she’s made of her marriage. We’re hopeful, however, that all of them are touched by their time at Marian’s, and that they’ll remember what it means to truly care for another human being.

Running Time: One hour 50 minutes, including one intermission.

Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes plays through March 29, 2020, at Signature Theatre – The Max, 4200 Campbell Ave. Arlington, VA. For tickets, call (703) 820-9771 or go online.

Note: All performances are sold out.

READ John Stoltenberg’s Magic Time! column, “I want to make space for women who make mistakes”: A Q&A with Dani Stoller, author of ‘Easy Women Smoking Loose Cigarettes’ at Signature Theatre


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