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THEATER REVIEW : Blurred Look at ‘Aftershocks’ of Adoption

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Doug Haverty’s “Aftershocks,” at the Colony, is one of those sow’s-ear plays that can’t be whipstitched into a silk purse, despite the most diligent efforts of the cast and production team.

In the play, Daphne (Sandra Kinder) and her best friend Olive (Kathryn Kates) have left their alcoholic husbands behind in Cleveland to make a new life in Hollywood--if a trailer park in Sun Valley qualifies, that is. Daphne and Olive have snagged a regular gig as Hollywood extras--the fulfillment of a dream for fanatical film buff Daphne. Even the recent earthquake or its continuing aftershocks cannot shake Daphne’s enthusiasm for her new life.

What does shake Daphne up is the arrival on her doorstep of Beth (Rachel Sheppard), the baby Daphne gave up for adoption 32 years ago, when she, at age 17, was a mere baby herself. What follows is an endless litany of recollection, recrimination and remorse, punctuated by laughs that grow ever fewer.

The actresses gamely try to inject some sparkle into Haverty’s unwieldy characterizations, but blurred motivation and forced conflict plague the play throughout. Daphne is so floridly flamboyant that she frequently strikes one as more demented than whimsical. Beth’s petty accusations and childish deceits seem shockingly sophomoric. Never sufficiently developed or explained, these character quirks remain nothing more than the playwright’s window dressing, a failed attempt to make his creations appear more complex.

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The characters express their innermost emotions with the ease of group therapy veterans. Never mind that they have just met. There’s no holding back on dramatic outbursts. Beth’s mother Anne (Betty Vaughn), supposedly a sensible and reserved woman, erupts into a public display of agonized penitence shortly after her arrival on the scene. Even the wonderfully dry and pragmatic Olive--the sole oasis in this desert of whining--eventually gets into the act, berating Daphne bitterly and threatening to move out because Daphne didn’t confide in her about her early pregnancy.

As usual at the Colony, the production values are excellent. Robert Wilson’s set is handsome and versatile, with just the right touch of trailer-park tackiness. Debra Garcia Lockwood’s lighting expertly evokes sun-drenched mornings in the north San Fernando Valley. Director Carol Newell has adorned this sow’s ear with some fine needle work, but her thoughtful staging is wasted.

In the program notes, Haverty states that “Aftershocks,” while not based on fact, was inspired by his own experience of having a long-lost family member “search out” his biological relations. Unfortunately, Haverty’s drama never makes the leap from personal experience to art. As Daphne says in the play, “Just because it happened doesn’t make it true.” For once, Daphne makes good sense.

* “Aftershocks,” Colony Studio Theatre, 1944 Riverside Drive, Los Angeles. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. Ends Oct . 2. $18-$20. (213) 665-3011. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.

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