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Tuesday, Jan. 20, 2009

Excavating the Past

Theater Review

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The convoluted landscape of the human psyche can be a real challenge to bring to the stage, but Milwaukee playwright Marie Kohler does an admirable job of conveying the complexities of the mind in her new drama The Dig.

Renaissance Theaterworks' production of The Dig stars Catherine Lynn Davis as Mattie, a woman who is contacted about legal issues involving a decades' old archaeological dig involving her older brother Jamie. During the dig, in Lebanon, Jamie developed schizophrenia and has never been the same since. As Mattie explores the legal matter, she is forced to reflect on her relationship with Jamie both before and after his trip abroad.

Past and present mix as Davis interacts with two actors playing Jamie. Paul Hurley plays the young archaeologist both before and during the ill-fated dig. Hurley brings a wide-eyed, even-tempered passion to the role. The young Jamie has a fiery love of knowledge that ricochets dynamically through the intimate space at the Broadway Theatre Center's Studio Theatre. Brian Mani plays the older, post-dig Jamie as a man drawn deeply inside himself.

Nearly inert physically, Mani drifts between reluctant coherence and seemingly nonsensical rhyming couplets. Mani's captivating performance provides a sympathetic portrayal of a man who has lost much of his ability to communicate with the outside world. In the wrong hands, the role of the older Jamie could have become a parody of itself. Mani's brilliantly subtle, nuanced performance contrasts strongly with Davis' portrayal. Davis modulates well between different emotions, but there isn't enough emotional texture in any individual moment to convincingly render the character's deeper issues.

The edges of the play are held up quite well by Josh Aaron McCabe and Elaine Robinson in a variety of supporting roles.

Renaissance Theaterworks' The Dig runs through Feb. 8.