By Jenn McKee
Kate Peckham and Sharon L. Brooks in “Criminal Hearts.” Photo: Planet Ant Theatre
After a rough break-up or divorce, people often feel like holing themselves up in their home to lick their wounds in private.
But for the agoraphobic main character of Jane Martin’s “Criminal Hearts,” now playing at Hamtramck’s Planet Ant Theatre, there’s a critical difference: Ata (Kate Peckham) isn’t just choosing to shut out the world for a while; she’s physically and emotionally unable to engage with it in any meaningful way.
Not that her apartment offers much in the way of distraction. Thanks to her philandering husband’s self-righteous anger over Ata’s desperate one-night-stand “affair,” the upper-class Chicago nest (nicely designed by Dave Early) is bare but for a twin mattress, a phone, stacks of pizza boxes, pencils, and dozens of strewn, empty cans of Dr. Pepper.
Ata has tried her best to hide from the world, but the world pushes its way in anyway, by way of a burglar named Bo (Sharon L. Brooks).
“Women shouldn’t shoot each other,” Ata argues upon seeing that her intruder is a woman. “Men shoot each other. Women relate.”
A funny line. But Martin (whose true identity is a secret, though most people suspect that the name’s a pseudonym for writer/director Jon Jory) is the kind of playwright that will use a statement like this for humor, mocking our stereotypes regarding gender, and then have the story play out that very cliche.
For indeed, when the tables are turned, and Ata finds herself holding Bo’s gun, Bo starts sharing personal information, too, hoping to appeal to Ata’s sense of compassion; and slowly, the walls between the two women, who come from very different backgrounds, appear to fall.
So much so, in fact, that Bo returns to Ata’s apartment on another occasion (a plot point that’s a bit hard to swallow), and the pair then concoct a revenge plot against Ata’s husband – the aftermath of which unfolds in act two.
“Criminal,” while having elements of a crime caper with political leanings (sexism, economic disparity, etc.), mostly feels like an absurdist farce. Ata is the play’s most well-drawn character; and due to both her eccentricities and illness, she has the funniest lines. (To name two examples: “I have more problems than I should demographically have,” she says while pointing the gun at Bo; and, when she recounts finding a pair of women’s underwear in her husband’s raincoat pocket, her disgusted lament is, “They weren’t even cotton!”) So Ata is the play’s meatiest role, and Peckham, more than any other actor, makes Planet Ant’s “Criminal” worth a trip. The danger in playing Ata is you have to make the audience feel for this sheltered, sad, ill, and neurotic woman – no small feat. But Peckham attacks the role with such appealing gusto and wit that you have no choice but to root for her.
Similarly, Will Myers’ direction provides the pigeonhole-resistant show with momentum and a sense of lightness, so that although you never quite know what will happen next, you remain engaged throughout. Early’s wood-floor apartment, meanwhile, fittingly feels like an externalization of Ata’s sense of emptiness, and the layout works well for the play’s action.
Yet I’ll confess that I wasn’t passionate about “Criminal.” The script challenges credulity at times, and the conclusion feels disappointingly easy, given the sophisticated dialogue and ideas that precede it. But when a play can be both provocative and laugh-out-loud funny, it’s clearly doing something right.
Planet Ant Theatre, 2357 Caniff Ave., Hamtramck. Friday-Saturday through Oct. 2, plus Sundays, Sept. 19 & 26. $20. 313-365-4948. http://www.planetant.com