Most of the questions in Nancy Murray’s new play Asking Questions are asked by Mandi, a determined 15-year-old who essentially wants to know one thing: Who is my father? Mandi’s mother, Meg, has always insisted he is dead, for reasons that Murray withholds till the midway point, so I shall not reveal them, except to note that they are unquestionably legitimate. The problem for Meg is that Mandi’s need for the truth is equally legitimate.
Fortunately, Murray demonstrates a healthy skepticism for easy answers. By play’s end, several characters are hopeful and another is devastated; tomorrow, the devastated may well be hopeful and the hopeful devastated. Or perhaps merely disappointed. When director Peter Davis and his fine cast and crew focus their energies on these themes, the result is taut, provocative drama.
Unfortunately, Davis and sound designer Aran Keating—whether encouraged by Murray’s script I do not know—interrupt countless moments with a succession of inexplicably distracting effects. A private conversation between Meg and her devoted brother is punctuated by canned laughter, as though the characters were actors in a sitcom; Mandi’s declaration that her mother may someday marry the man of her dreams is underscored with intentionally sappy, swelling music; sizeable chunks of conversation are accompanied by what sound like chirping birds.
None of these choices feels justified by Murray’s otherwise realistic style or choice of subject matter. Worse, they frequently seem to trivialize it, as though Davis were not content to allow the story and his actors to speak for themselves—a double shame, for the actors are quite good, particularly Shanna Babbidge and Julia Pickens as mother and daughter. At times, Pickens’s Mandi seems years more mature than the scattered Meg, who was forced to grow up before she was ready; when pressed by unwanted questions, Babbidge stiffens, her features harden, and we see the traumatized girl stubbornly asserting herself beneath the mask of responsibility. Yet Babbidge and Pickens leave no doubt that, whatever her faults, Meg desperately loves her daughter, and Mandi, whatever her resentments, just as clearly loves her mother.
Kevin Griffin Moreno plays Mandi’s father, Mark, as written: an inherently decent man who made a horrible mistake; though I would have liked to have seen more fire from Mark when confronted by Meg with his crimes, his reunion with Mandi is tender and truly moving. Erin Boots is excellent as Mandi’s older friend, Jen, whose transformation from giggly schoolgirl to sleek temptress seems calculated to horrify any parent even remotely as protective as Meg. While I question the casting of Andrew Syropoulos as Mandi’s uncle, Doug—Syropoulos appears to be the same age as Pickens—he combines deft comic timing with an appropriately righteous sense of indignation; even so, I found it difficult to believe that Doug and Meg would speak as candidly as they do unless they’re supposed to be much closer in age.
The only character who doesn’t fit is a young man, played by Gary Williams, who meets a drunk Mandi in a nightclub; we are clearly intended to think him a predator, and Williams plays him accordingly—the sequence, which blends skillfully into Meg and Mark’s retelling of their own fateful meeting, is one of several occasions when Murray and Davis find intriguing parallels in space and time. When the young man reappears, however, he has been re-imagined as the opposite stereotype: a kind of urban white knight. In the context of the play’s more satisfying ambiguities, this inconsistency, with its stark contrast between the “right” and “wrong” ways for a man to behave, rings false.
If Asking Questions is concerned with proper codes of behavior for anyone, it is those between parents and children. At its core is a compelling relationship between a mother with a shameful secret and a daughter who demands her right to know. The fact that certain questions lack comforting answers makes them no less crucial to ask.