A middle-aged woman sits on a hardwood floor, marked off by black tape. In front of her is a cardboard box and a pile of books — Fitzgerald, Tolstoy, Hemingway — which she packs and unpacks for the next 95 minutes.
Come March 7th through 9th, she’ll be sitting on a 16-by-4 inch platform — raised two feet in the air — in one of Cinemapolis‘s 90-seat theatres. But for now, Anne Marie Cummings of the Readers’ Theatre of Ithaca is rehearsing a dramatic staged reading of Neil LaBute’s psychological thriller “In a Forest, Dark and Deep.”
Directed by Ithaca College professor Cynthia Henderson, “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” features a sister/brother duo: Betty (Cummings), an English professor, and Bobby (Evan Stewart Eisenberg), a blue-collar carpenter. When her tenant suddenly abandons her cabin in the middle of the woods, Betty calls her estranged younger brother, Bobby, for physical and emotional support.
But siblings can be both your best friends and your worst enemies. They tease, bicker and ridicule. They know how to get under each other’s skin and how to hide the truth under a protective wrap of “maybes” and “I’m kiddings.” That’s what Betty and Bobby do, volleying barbs on everything from money to morals.
“I told them they’re almost liked caged animals,” says Henderson. “It’s like a couple of caged animals constantly trying to find out what the other is up to.”
LaBute’s funny, smart and witty dialogue lends itself to this. While Eisenberg adopts what he describes as a “guttural New York style blue-collar flow,” he articulates Bobby’s foul and astute observations. “Truth hurts,” he says early on, which quickly becomes a refrain of the play.
“I should have just called the moving guys,” says Betty. “I didn’t ask for a free hour of therapy.”
But lucky for us, she didn’t. As Bobby emotionally probes into the mind and actions of his sister, Cummings becomes LaBute’s Russian nesting doll — revealing hidden layers while illustrating her range and dexterity as an actor.
Cummings, the Readers’ Theatre’s founder and artistic director, starred as Abbey Prescott in the company’s performance of LaBute’s “Mercy Seat” last year. She said that role was a piece of cake compared to Betty.
“This is by far the most challenging role,” says Cummings. “I mean, it really calls on everything for an actor because the trick with this character is masking what’s underneath, but having what’s underneath there and having it really be there, and not forgetting, but just trusting that it is.”
To prepare her actors for the intricacies of their roles, Henderson said she asked them nosy and personal questions about their characters.
“It’s very dysfunctional, but there is a sibling love and need there that could get lost in the arguments, and so I wanted to bring forward the care they have for each other even if they don’t want to admit it,” Henderson said.
That affection is visibly there when Cummings smacks Eisenberg with her script and when Eisenberg pleads and comforts her. They dance around each other with both action and language and at one moment, Bobby compare themselves with wolves.
Like wolves, they’re at each other’s throats at various points of the play, but they also have a fierce loyalty to one another. Sure, they have their disagreements — which initially transcended the play.
“[Anne Marie Cummings] was looking at me like, ‘Is this guy out of his mind? Is he playing the role?'” says Eisenberg on their first rehearsal together. “All it was was I was just standing my ground.”
Cummings, who cast “In a Forest, Dark and Deep,” said she had Eisenberg in mind for the challenging role of Bobby. Eisenberg was the male lead in “Soul Mates,” a play written and directed by Cummings, and performed as part of the Readers’ Theatre’s 2013 summer series.
“I chose this play for the Readers’ Theatre so any play that I choose is usually a play because I think of people in the community who are going to be right for it and are going to like it,” she said.
LaBute’s “In a Forest, Dark and Deep” first premiered in 2011 at West End’s Vaudeville Theatre in London. It will be the Readers’ Theatre’s first play at their new downtown location in Cinemapolis.
“In a Forest, Dark and Deep” was written by Neil LaBute and directed by Cynthia Henderson, starring Anne Marie Cummings and Evan Stewart Eisenberg; with music by Hank Roberts. A staged reading will be performed from March 7-9 at Cinemapolis on 120 East Green Street in Ithaca, N.Y.
Tickets can be purchased at www.thereaderstheatre.com. Advance tickets are $10 for students and $12 for adults. Tickets will be $12 for students (with student ID) and $15 for adults at the door.