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Life and Arts

Starts and stops make play hard to follow

The Syzygy Theatre Group, Grove Theater Center-Burbank’s company-in-residence, has on tap an intriguing, yet emotionally disorganized, West Coast premiere of “Smudge” by playwright Rachel Axler.

Centered around a young couple, Nick and Colby, who are anticipating the arrival of their firstborn child, Axler’s piece seems intended as an often darkly comic psychological study.

Their daughter Cassandra’s arrival, so hoped for, heralds an overwhelming sense of disappointment as the child suffers from severe, normally life-threatening disabilities.

Axler does a fine job of demonstrating the individual coping mechanisms of the two parents each seeing the child from very different perspectives.


As Nick, actor Mark Thomsen, captures the essence of a man struggling to find some light out of the darkness represented by his unresponsive child, one moment overcompensating in his attempts to rehabilitate little “Cassie,” the next turning to existential philosophy to find some rationale for this dilemma.

Heather Fox, as Colby, provides a portrait of a woman struggling to preserve her sanity as she realizes she can never offer a normal mother’s love and devotion.

Thrown into this conflagration of mental instability, perhaps representing the audience’s perspective, is actor Bart Tangredi as Nick’s brother, Peter.

His nearly show-stealing performance is wonderfully well-rounded as Tangredi wrings every last drop of comedy out of this caustically humorous character.


Unfortunately, the play’s configuration of multiple short scenes that feel better structured for film or television sometimes works against the main characters’ emotional arcs.

It’s a problem that director Darin Anthony combats gamely by keeping scene changes as brisk as possible.

And it’s not that these scenes aren’t quite good in their own right, but this extended one-act’s momentum is adversely affected by all of the stopping and starting and there are a few that seem under-rehearsed.

On top of this dramaturgical style, Axler imbues Cassandra — seen only as a large, old-fashioned perambulator-styled carriage — with a supernatural method of communication.

The stroller, presumably the collective work of designers Sara Ryung Clement (scenic), Jaymi Lee Smith (lights) and Joseph Slawinski (sound), is a carnival-like display of sound cues and blinking lights.

Only Colby witnesses these proceedings and although it helps her bond with Cassandra, audiences may spend more time distractedly admiring the prop’s mechanics.

Ultimately, Axler leaves one with so many questions.

Will these parents be able to move forward as a cohesive familial unit having logically come full circle in their particular journeys? Are they collectively delusional in their method for handling the unthinkable?


As with all art, beauty and answers lie in the eye of the beholder. Perhaps the magic of Axler’s script and this production is that one exits the theater with plenty of food for thought.


What: “Smudge” by Rachel Axler

When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday through Feb. 19.

Where: Grove Theater Center-Burbank, 1111-B W. Olive Ave., Burbank

Tickets: $30

Contact: (800) 838-3006 or visit