POOR CLARE at Atwater Village Theatre

Reviewed by Deborah Klugman

Before taking her vows and founding a new religious order, St. Clare of Assisi was a privileged young woman privy to all the perks and pleasures of the wealthy elite in 13th century Italy. All that changed after she heard, then heeded, the preaching of her fellow townsperson, Francis — like herself, a rich kid before he got religion and became famous as a practitioner of poverty and advocate for the poor. Historical anecdote reports that teenage Clare defied her father, who actively objected to her choice of vocation, by clinging to a church altar as he tried to wrest her away. She won out over her family’s pleas to return home, and later became the founder and abbess of her own order, gaining such favor in ecclesiastical circles that she was canonized within two years of her death.

But POOR CLARE, playwright Chiara Atik’s incisive and entertaining play having a world premiere at The Echo Theatre in Atwater, makes no mention of Dad or the altar incident. A woman-centered narrative beautifully molded by director Alana Dietze, it eschews melodrama and the portrayal of historic events in favor of Atik’s sardonic but ultimately purposeful account of the title character’s passage from a kind of clueless 13th century “Valley Girl” to a principled devotee of charitable works and humble living.

When we meet Clare (Jordan Hull), she’s having her hair coiffed by not one but two gossipy servants (Kari Lee Cartwright and Martica De Cardenas). Clare’s a nice gal– not peremptory or arrogant as some rich indulged girls might be; she’s courteous with her maids and convivially joins in their chitchat. She and her sister Beatrice (Donna Zadeh) might engage in some minor sibling rivalry, but overall they are loving and supportive of each other. And Clare’s mom Ortolana (Ann Noble) is an enlightened parent of a sort; no stay-at-home housewife, she’s made personal pilgrimages to the Holy Land and interacted with those less fortunate than herself and gained (what she considers) personal insight from the experience. One’s impression on the whole is that of an amiable group of people, well-intentioned but cloistered by their wealth, rather like certain strata of the American middle class.

Indeed, the root charm of Atik’s play is her juxtaposition of a medieval setting with contemporary lingo; these characters may inhabit a time and place that is eight hundred years in the past, but they also are recognizable as people we know.

That includes Francis (Michael Sturgis) in his pre-sainthood days. He’s an odd bird who appears in the town square one day and strips naked in front of the local bishop as a protest against wealth inequality. He’s intelligent, intrepid and weirdly insecure, the smart rich kid whose life’s work is tearing the system down. Then there’s the Beggar (Tony DeCarlo) whom Clare initially ignores when she passes him on the street, much as we do the homeless today. Ever present and ubiquitous, he’s an emissary for the impoverished and oppressed down through history,

All the production elements work in harmony to suggest the wealth and privilege of the Italian upper classes of the period in contrast to the dark spare living conditions of everyone else. Scenic designer Amanda Knehans frames Clare’s early years with an elegant tasteful backdrop that features wood-paneled walls with gilded trim and gothic patterns, which Azra King-Abadi’s and layered subtle lighting design enhances. Dianne K. Graebner costumes, especially the sumptuous dresses for Clare and Beatrice, are a treat, while the same may be said for the complementary wig and hair design by Klint Flowers. It all adds up to a colorful elaboration of a great story, spun in an intimate theater.

The acting is uniformly good, though there’s a whiff of sitcom in the back-and-forth in some of the earlier scenes, likely to fade as the run continues and the performances deepen. In the lead, Hull is a revelation, transforming in the course of the evening from an attractive youthful presence — her Clare when we meet her is a fun-loving person with superficial cares — to a woman of substance. There’s a split second when, talking with Francis, she finally grasps his explanation of how the socio-political system of economic injustice self-perpetuates, and in that subtle gem of a moment we glimpse both what the character and the actress portraying her are capable of.

Noble wears the role of gracious matron and solicitous parent as snugly as a glove. Zadeh’s sisterly scenes with Clare, along with Cartwright and De Cardenas as servants who have absorbed the perspective of their employers, all have an authentic ring. Sturgis, an actor who understands madness and obsession (I get that from other roles I’ve seen him in) is on track for a definitive portrait of an unusual man who segues into history. And DeCarlo is on point as the embodiment of the resigned-to-abuse lower classes.

If I had any suggestions to make, it would be for the playwright to finesse the ending, which relays the message of the play with a punch but is such a radical departure in style from what’s gone before as to seem jarring and inorganic.

The Echo Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave. L.A.; Fri.-Sat. and Mon., 8 p.m., Sun. 4 p.m., through Nov. 29. Tickets: 310-307-3753 or www.EchoTheaterCompany.com

Photo (above) credit: Cooper Bates

Actors: Michael Sturgis and Jordan Hull

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