In itself, the stage design for The Debacle is a fine work of art. Almost all of the action in this one-person play takes place on a small platform raised twelve feet off the ground, closed in with shelves and wooden slats, and crowded up with glass jars and a big tub of ice. It's the kind of place you wouldn't mind dwelling in for an hour or two-but only for an hour or two. The genius of Andrew's Cull's set is that it manages to be both supremely homely and supremely alienating, calling to mind everything from a curiosity shop to a beat-up apartment to a child's attic hideout to (if you'll allow me a bit of a stretch) the inner, frozen reaches of Dante's Inferno.
But whether the action of the play deepens these subtleties, or overwhelms them with blistering emotion, is another matter entirely. The Debacle is a one-hour tour of the mind and memories of Margaret (Ann-Marie Kerr), a cryobiologist with a family history of lingering melancholies and countervailing joys. Her monologue begins with a childhood recollection involving a frozen lake, and culminates with the recollection of an unexpected tragedy. Also involving a frozen lake.
Yes, this is rather contrived. And yet, while such contrivances would look simply amateurish in a more traditional drama, in The Debacle they can be strangely appropriate. The play's setting, after all, is an ambiguous dreamlike space. So it makes sense that Margaret's narration follows the logic of improbable repetitions and looming symbols that is so common in dreams. I'm not sure how to explain some of The Debacle's odder moves-the scene where Margaret sings "Total Eclipse of the Heart" to a rubber frog, for instance-but I will admit that I was amused. Impressed, too, that Kerr brought the same kind of energy and commitment to her weightier passages and her sillier sequences. And such dedicated acting can compensate for a lot.