On Stage: Stealing the Show

by Chuck Conconi

REVIEW: Lighthearted ‘The Shoplifters’ tackles bigger issues.

(L-R): Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

(L-R): Delaney Williams as Otto, Adi Stein as Dom, Jayne Houdyshell as Alma and Jenna Sokolowski as Phyllis. (Photo by Teresa Wood)

Several years ago I interviewed a woman who paid for her heroin habit by shoplifting. She received only a third of the value of what she had stolen from her fence, but explained that it wasn’t difficult to steal enough to pay for her habit. She even bragged that she had once put a television set under her dress and walked out of the store undetected. She took pride in being a successful shoplifter.

Arena Stage has premiered a slice-of-life new play by Canadian playwright Morris Panych titled “The Shoplifters.” It highlights the impressive comedic talents of veteran actor Jayne Houdyshell as the elderly shoplifter Alma who steals food from the supermarket for herself and to help feed people in the projects where she lives. There is a shadowy complexity to the roll Panych has written and Houdyshell has found the depths not obvious on the surface of his clever, satirical script.

Houdyshell easily projects Panych’s gnawing focus attempting to understand why normal, otherwise law-abiding people steal. Shoplifting is a petty crime, but it is still illegal. It is simply a reality and Panych, who also directs his play, says he is not trying to make a case for social justice.

“Politics is not my thing; not in writing anyway,” Panych observes in the show’s playbill. “An odd thing to say in Washington, D.C., but there is enough politics in theater and enough theater in politics, that any more comedy is simply redundant. We all recognize the inherent imbalance of the system we live in; and sometimes we secretly applaud the evening of the score.”

In Panych’s 90-minute, four-character production, he doesn’t lose his insight into human behavior, and by significantly reducing the scale, he has sharpened his focus. All of “The Shoplifters” action takes place in the stock room of a grocery store. Ken MacDonald, the set and costume designer, created an entire backdrop of boxes of name-brand grocery products, wall-to-wall, stacked to the ceiling. There is a table where two security guards, Adi Stein and Delaney Williams, (Dom and Otto) try to get confessions out of Alma and her partner in crime, Phyllis (Jenna Sokolowski).
The overzealous rookie, Dom, has caught the two women hiding steaks under their dresses on his first day on the job and acts like he is conducting an investigation for an episode of “Law and Order.” He gets no cooperation from a veteran thief like Alma, but the ditzy, younger Phyllis is intimidated. For Dom, the law is the law and a crime is a crime. Dom, while not an especially creative character, controls his role as a frenetic, by-the-book character right out of the Andy Griffith Show.

He is balanced by Otto, the older security officer, who is being dismissed because he has too often looked the other way to avoid catching minor shoplifters. Otto is aware that he is working in a gray area. He and Alma have watched each other, and both know what’s going on. Williams, as Otto, is a sympathetic character who has been beaten down by his role in life. He and Houdyshell have a sharp but endearing presence together.

“The Shoplifters,” being reworked as it is in production, opens Arena’s 65th season. Shoplifting is a serious national problem and we all pay more for everything we purchase because of it, but as Panych points out there are no easy answers. For Alma, shoplifting is not a crime; it is what she does. In the harsh reality of this light comedy, social problems are unlikely to ever be resolved and Alma will continue to shoplift.

The Shoplifters” continues through Oct. 19, 2014, at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, 1101 Sixth Street SW. Tickets start at $40 and available at 202-488-3300 and online here.

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