Entertainment » Theatre

The Atheist

by Kilian Melloy
Tuesday Jan 24, 2017
Georgia Lyman flips -- and illuminates -- the script in Ronan Noone's 'The Atheist'
Georgia Lyman flips -- and illuminates -- the script in Ronan Noone's 'The Atheist'  (Source:Kalman Zabarsky/Boston Playwrights' Theatre)

Tabloid journalism and sexual power are two prongs in the hole trinity presented in Ronan Noone's play "The Atheist" playing now through Feb. 5 at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre. And the third? The raw, exorcising power of honest, unflinching storytelling to save, salve, damn, and explicate.

Georgia Lyman alternately blisters and beautifies the audience with her full-tilt, unstinting performance as August Early, the single character in this one-performer show. It's a remarkable turn on its own, and more so when you remember that August Early -- as depicted in earlier productions -- has been male before now. Campbell Scott played Early in a Huntington Theatre Company production of "The Atheist" in 2007, and while Campbell brought a dark, intelligent gloss to the role, he didn't manage the frankly brutal force that Lyman achieves -- a forcefulness that can convey humor, jealousy, possessiveness, ambition, hatred... or, one might be surprised to discover, love.

Early makes a good case for her amoral and outrageous behavior. She escaped life in a trailer at the age of 12 by burning the trailer to the ground and then playing the pitiable urchin at the side of her impoverished single mother; that performance earned them a spot in comfortable subsidized housing. Deciding that without God (or any other moral compass save her own appetites) to weigh her down she could soar to the heights she craves, Early embarks on a career in journalism. She quickly figures out how to game the system in her favor, but she's not as bright as she thinks she is; the games she plays invariably have a sting built into their tails that are going to come back around and skewer her.

For instance: Early positions herself such that she can use her journalistic platform to influence the jury of a rape trial. She does this for trivial reasons - the sort of narcissistic and short-sighted reasons that might, say, compel a president to give voice to déclassé comments and obsess over matters of vanishing insignificance. She doesn't really reckon on the inevitable consequences, however, and when she escapes those consequences only as the result of stumbling into an even more unsavory situation, she's unable to see how precarious her place in the world really is.

This becomes a recurring motif. Early has a facility for the lucky break, such that her schemes don't backfire quite as often or as soon as they should. What seems like her good fortune, though, turns out to be a matter of fate doling out rope enough for her to hang herself. Will she be foolhardy enough to thrust her neck through the noose, sacrificing relationships and reputation along the way? Or will redemption income from -- love, a conversion, as 12-step program to address her hard-drinking ways -- pull her back from the brink?

Atheism as a recipe for fame and fortune will only get you so far. (For that matter, plenty of professionally predatory believers have little trouble reconciling their mortal sins with their ardent faith.) But there's a different sort of devotion underlying the play, and that's a worship of celebrity. If Early has to go to literal or emotional Hell to reach the bliss of fame or even infamy -- and if she has to drag a few others down with her -- she's more than ready and willing to go all the way into the flames. The burning doesn't trouble her; what she should be looking out for, though, is the crash, and we see it coming long before it even occurs to her that it could happen. That lends Early a human, even tenderly sympathetic, quality. Is she Faust making a deal because she's calculated her personal threshold of recompense for damnation and balanced her books accordingly? Or is she a figure from a Greek tragedy, unable by nature to avoid her fate?

What she is, in this production, is a character who's fiery by nature -- and a lesbian at that, EDGE readers, so take note -- and she's keen to set the world on fire. In today's conflagration of ego, accusation, and false everything -- fake news, empty equivalencies -- Early's sins could seem like misdemeanors. At least she's got the courage of her corrupt convictions.

Noone himself not only directed this production and created the scenic design -- a dense and meaningful whirlwind of slogans, projections (Walter Cronkite on one wall, beaming down with avuncular trustworthiness; Early herself on another wall, documenting her own words of excoriating honesty and, by way of video, documenting, in turn, that very act of self-documentation), and witticisms scrawled out in chalk -- but also came up with the reinterpretation of Early as a female character and set his sights on casting Lyman. His instincts are wholly validated by the result. For such a radical reinvention, this revival serves well as a definitive vision of the play.

"The Atheist" continues through Feb. 5 at the Boston Playwrights' Theatre, 949 Commonwealth Avenue in Boston. For tickets and more information, please go to http://www.bu.edu/bpt

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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