A reclusive ex-lawyer living in Costa Rica and his troubled teenage niece bridge the generation gap, in Seattle Public Theater’s “Slowgirl.”

By Misha Berson  Seattle Times theater critic

Slowgirl

Enlarge this photoPhoto by PAUL BESTOCK

 Kevin McKeon and Hannah Mootz in SPT’s Slowgirl

by Greg Pierce, directed by Kelly Kitchens

 

A mouthy teenager taking a break from big trouble. A former lawyer hiding out from his past failures in a Central American jungle.

This is playwright Greg Pierce’s recipe for the rather predictable yet engaging drama “Slowgirl,” which is elevated at Seattle Public Theater by a picturesque production and two actors committed to finding maximum authenticity in their roles. Like the Amy Herzog play “4000 Miles,” presented recently at ArtsWest Playhouse, “Slowgirl” imagines a situation where a pair of relatives who haven’t been close are thrown together by circumstance — and manage to bridge a yawning generation gap.

“Slowgirl” is the slighter of the two works, as it incrementally reveals the secrets that force 17-year-old Becky (Hannah Mootz) and her reclusive Uncle Sterling (Kevin McKeon) into mutual revelations at an isolated cabin in the wilds of Costa Rica. In Kelly Kitchens’ smartly choreographed staging, on an evocative set by Andrea Bush, the two approach one another awkwardly and warily at first.

McKeon’s contemplative, self-contained Sterling has retreated from society, family and career to a remote foreign haven. He maintains a quiet routine of reading, sipping papaya smoothies, building trails, meditating with daily walks on a labyrinth he’s devised. Mootz’s Becky is a disruption, and then some. She’s loud and loquacious, scornful of and easily rattled by this unfamiliar environment. And her unfiltered chatter, laced with profanity and slang and shallow observation, can make her uncle blush, cringe and long for solitude.

Until her bravado starts to melt in the tropical heat, Becky is an obnoxious adolescent caricature. But Mootz proves again her ability to breathe complex life into stage images of troubled teenagers. She has the skill to intimate, in her fleeting expressions of panic and her kinetic restlessness, the anxieties underlying Becky’s glibness.

As Becky blurts out mismatching versions of the vicious prank against a disabled student that has precipitated this journey, and may severely alter her future, you sense how hard she’s trying to deceive Sterling — and herself. And when she dismissively mentions a collection of poems she wrote, you know there’s more to this kid than meets the ear.

McKeon’s main task here is to effectively listen, react, question — and he has the nuanced talent to accomplish all of that affectingly. There is little doubt that, as they grow closer Sterling (whose secrets are also burdensome, but sketchier) will summon the compassion to return to “civilization” and aid a loved one, and that Becky’s denial of culpability will crumble. That process intensifies as the writing gets more honed, and the actors illuminate but don’t overplay the characters’ new points of connection.

 “Slowgirl” is more successful as a dual character portrait, than as a study of guilt and remorse. (The details of Becky’s legal situation can be picked apart, and Sterling’s choice to live abroad needn’t be such a moral strike against him.) But the performances and production design work some magic here.

We must believe the reunion in “Slowgirl” occurs in a special sanctum — isolated, primordial, free from outside judgment. Director Kitchens and her designers transport us there by inviting us into Bush’s design of a cozy wood cabin. It is backed by a cutout mural of lush forest vegetation mounted on burlap, through which Tristan Roberson’s subtle lighting effects stream. Evan Mosher and Andre Nelson’s sound design adds the cawing of parrots, the skittering of nocturnal animals on the roof and other sounds of a faraway refuge.

Through April 12, 2015. Run time 90 minutes. At Seattle Public Theater at the historic Green Lake Bathhhouse, 7312 W. Greenlake Drive N., Seattle; (206-524-1300 or seattlepublictheater.org). Free parking.

Theater review – originally published Friday, April 2, 2015