In The Glory of Living, playwright Rebecca Gilman invites us to walk in the footsteps of an 18-year-old murderer named Lisa, who, after procuring runaway girls for her abusive husband to rape, takes the victims into the woods and shoots them. Caught, convicted, and sent to Death Row, Lisa seems incapable of imagining that she might have made different choices—that her victims might have been anything other than “the type” that allow themselves to be victimized—and therefore Lisa seems incapable of remorse.
Yet it is a testament to the power of Gilman’s writing, and to the shattering production that opened Thursday night at the Strand Theater in Baltimore, that we weep for Lisa even as we wonder, outraged, how a society that trumpets equality of opportunity could allow so many lost souls to fall into the abyss. Its baldly ironic title aside, The Glory of Living—a finalist for the 2002 Pulitzer Prize—is based on actual events and people, and Gilman looks deeply and with great compassion into their brutal lives, even as she scrupulously dramatizes their nightmares. The opening scene, in which Lisa and Clint, her soon-to-be husband, talk loudly over the sounds of Lisa’s prostitute mother servicing a john, sets the tone; the final scene, in which Lisa’s court-appointed lawyer gives Lisa a gift perhaps greater than freedom, transforms that tone into something heart-achingly beautiful.
At the center of the Strand’s production is Mary Myers’s remarkable performance as Lisa. With her clenched jaw line and fiercely intelligent eyes, red-rimmed from fear and sleepless nights, she seems a formidable presence, only to crumble in the face of her husband’s sociopathic rage or dissolve like a little girl into fits of inappropriate laughter (much to the chagrin of her lawyer, who tries uselessly to re-cast her as a sympathetic witness).
Director Jayme Kilburn has surrounded Myers with a stellar supporting cast, beginning with the two primary men in Lisa’s life (not counting her absent father, of whom we hear precious little). As Clint, R. Brett Rohrer is just charming enough to be dangerous—we can see in his easy courtship why Lisa would view marriage as a genuine improvement in her condition, and the sudden violence of his temper never ceases to shock. As Carl, the lawyer given the impossible task of defending Lisa, Chris Poverman becomes the play’s beating heart despite not making his first appearance until midway through Act Two. His inability to be anything more than a witness to Lisa’s long march to the electric chair tears at his conscience, yet he earns her trust, as she earns his sympathy, and their several conversations together lead them—and us—to a wholly unexpected place.
The rest of the cast is solid, though the characters begin to seem a bit interchangeable. Alexis Graves, Whitney St. Ours, and Stacy Downs play three of Clint and Lisa’s victims, and Gavin Whitt plays a young man whom Lisa leaves for dead but who survives. Sean Coe is appropriately sleazy as the aforementioned john; later, he hits the right notes as the horrified detective who takes Lisa’s confession. Mattie Rogers is similarly effective in a pair of contrasting roles—first as Lisa’s worn-out mother, then as a police transcriber more interested in correct punctuation than in Lisa’s grisly testimony.
The set, designed by David Cunningham, consists of several platforms and sections of painted wall—the side that typically represents the bedroom is a fiery red except for a tiny window revealing a patch of blue sky that seems to mock the Strand’s claustrophobic space. Matt Klein’s lighting design further carves up the stage.
Yet through all the abuse, Lisa endures, if not courageously (and certainly not heroically), then at least stubbornly refusing to surrender. She is a survivor, and were her spirit transplanted into another, gentler set of circumstances, there is little doubt she could have achieved great things. This does not absolve her of guilt … but neither are we blameless. The program argues that “Gilman [makes] the case that we all bear responsibility for young people whose childhoods have been stolen by a society that no longer nurtures its young.” It is the rare play that can make this case in a manner that is neither didactic nor moralizing. The Glory of Living is one such play.