Comedy is tough.
It pretends to be frivolous, but it can tell the same fundamental truths — about relationships, the pains of the human condition, and the joys and sorrows of life — as high drama. As many a comic has said, “Comedy is tragedy plus time.” Comedy is considered light entertainment, but it is harder to pull off than serious drama, because it must amuse while doing so, instead of demanding like the beleaguered Willy Loman that “attention must be paid!” The best comedy makes you think and moves you but sneaks it in behind a chuckle or a guffaw.
Best Medicine Rep is a nonprofit, professional theater company specializing in new comedies, often written by local playwrights. Many contemporary theaters focus on edgy drama, and many community theaters fall back on crowd-pleasing classics, mysteries, or musicals. To produce new work intended to make audiences laugh is a brave thing to do, because it carries risk. Without recognizable titles or famous names (the Neil Simons and Agatha Christies that older patrons visit like old friends), audiences are far from guaranteed. And to claim outright that you intend to make those audiences laugh is a high bar. But Best Medicine Rep, in their sixth season, is clearing that bar.
Their latest offering, The Trip, by Crystal V. Rhodes, directed by Yvonne Paretzky, shows why. The story of four friends taking a pair of road trips from Chicago to L.A. 20 years apart offers satisfying amounts of both chuckles and truth. The setting (lights, sound, set, projection design by John Morogiello), a car made up of chairs in front of a simply painted road backdrop, seems almost primitive at first. But it makes effective use of projections to show the passage of distance, altitude, and time — including during intermission, when dates and representative images show the intervening years. The confined nature of the scenes — three or four in two acts spaced 20 years apart — makes a formal virtue of the physical confines of the setting. The structure is satisfying, and because the scenes are so similar, the changes become more apparent.
The characters are well-drawn. Nikki (Erika Irving) is a shy, reserved, people-pleasing “good girl” — at least at first. Victoria (Devin Nikki Thomas) is a happy-go-lucky peacemaker — but her chain-smoking hints at hidden stresses. Jo Anne (Jacqueline Youm) is a loud, bossy, complaining, braggart who learns better the hard way. And Ginny (Hana Clairice) is the leader, the organizer, dependable, but capable of hurting others. They all have their quirks and flaws, which soon, in the close confines of the car, start to drive one another nuts, until secrets spill out and threaten to sink their friendship.
The actors embody their characters well. On top of shifting from friendship to bickering to bitter enmity, the most interesting challenge they must tackle is aging 20 years during intermission. This is accomplished through changes in the costumes by Elizabeth Kemmerer (not, thank the theatrical gods, through any attempts at age makeup) and, most important, through the demeanor of the performers. Ginny (Clarice) has become even more take-charge, but also more elegant. Victoria (Thomas) keeps her easy-going temperament but loses the stress, because happiness has tempered her. Perhaps she changes the least, but throughout, Thomas’ performance is authentic, amusing, and textured with reactions and mannerisms that are rich and charming without ever becoming distracting. Nikki (Irving) has some of the biggest changes to portray, from being a doormat through most of Act 1 to cold rage and then regret in Act 2. She captures them well, although her snap to self-assertion seems quite sudden. Jo Ann (Youm) is very funny in her bossing, bragging, and complaining in the first act, to the point where the audience hopes that she will get some of what’s coming to her. She is supposed to learn some hard lessons, but Youm’s characterization seems even more different in Act 2 than the situation demands. She delivers her lines in such a precise, measured, and formal style that she comes across as not only a different character but almost from a different play.
One of the most refreshing things about this production is that it is written, directed, designed, acted, and crewed almost entirely by women. Even in contemporary theater, there are still too few plays by and roles for women, and The Trip helps fill the need for female-centered and created stories. These characters do spend a fair amount of time talking about men and relationships with them, but love and loss have always been the stuff of drama, and it is very clear that men are not the be-all and end-all of their existences by a long shot. In fact, the woman who seems most dependent on men for fulfillment pays the heaviest price in the end. Above all, the story is an affirmation of female endurance, achievement, growth, and friendship.
And all of it is wrapped in some good laughs. What more could you ask from a night at the theater?
The Trip is not Hamlet or Waiting for Godot. It is new, fresh, female, and funny.
And that is what makes it worth seeing.
The Trip plays through October 2, 2022 — Fridays and Saturdays at 7 pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2:30 — presented by Best Medicine Rep Theatre Company performing at Lakeforest Mall – 701 Russell Avenue, Gaithersburg, MD. Purchase tickets ($25 general admission, $23 seniors) at the door or go online.
COVID Safety: All patrons must be masked. (See also Your Visit.)