Two collegiate-level plays opened last Friday in Fresno, and both show how invigorating it is to be exposed to recent acclaimed work from American playwrights at the top of their games. While Fresno State’s “Wonder of the World,” by David Lindsay-Abaire, takes us on a zany journey of self-discovery, Fresno City College’s snappy “Mauritius,” from the powerhouse playwright Theresa Rebeck, maneuvers us in an opposite direction. It’s a brisk and subtle thriller laced with an undercurrent of menace — as well as offering a chortle or two about the craziness of family dynamics.
It continues through Saturday at the Fresno City College Theatre.
For those not up on their philately, the title of the play refers to the island nation of Mauritius, which early in the history of postage produced two of the rarest stamps in the world, known as the “Post Office” series. It turns out those two stamps ended up in a collection in the hands of two adult half-sisters: the younger Jackie (Olivia Stemler); and the middle-aged Mary (Bridget Manders-Martin).
Both sisters have reasonable claims to the collection. Jackie just finished a traumatic run nursing her dying mother without any help from her long-absent sister, and she considers the collection a payoff for her troubles. Mary, on the other hand, has a strong personal connection to the stamps, having helped her grandfather collect them.
If this were just a tale of feuding siblings, it probably wouldn’t have the oomph to fill out a compelling storyline. Instead, Rebeck offers another layer of intrigue. When Jackie takes the collection to be appraised — not realizing just how rare the stamps are — she gets caught up in an odd triangle of deceit and manipulation between a local stamp dealer, Philip (Josh Hansen), a cutthroat collector, Sterling (Kerry Cavin), and a smooth-talking con man, Dennis (Mohammed Shehata). A twin track of cat-and-mouse jockeying ensues, with the sisters grappling for position relative to each other and Jackie trying to outwit the three men who desperately want the stamps.
It’s all played out against another one of Fresno City College’s strong production designs. Christopher R. Boltz’s ingenious set includes a middle “window” of sorts in which different settings slide in and out of view, and his lighting design provides a faintly grim, moody atmosphere. (I felt like the whole play unfolded on overcast winter days.) Debbi Shapazian’s costumes, from Mary’s matronly attire to Jackie’s youthful casualness, are spot-on.
Director Charles Erven finds a crisp, calculating rhythm to the play, drawing out some exceptional performances from his actors. Manders-Martin, as the older sister, brings to her role a well crafted blend of condescension, arrogance and obliviousness, while Hansen has some fine moments as the slouchy, bitter stamp dealer. Shehata’s pointed portrayal of the fast-talking Dennis is balanced by his character’s insecurity; you can almost see the worried wheels turning.
Stemler, as Jackie, nicely captures the unsophisticated bent of her character in the first act, and she deftly plays the explosive conflict scene with Manders-Martin. I wish that Stemler’s shift to a more cold and calculating persona in the second act could be more nuanced. There’s an openness to Stemler’s performance that feels like it should be a little more guarded as the level of intrigue builds.
And then there’s the standout Cavin, who is superb as the rigid Sterling. When he walks into the stamp store for the first time to bully the hapless Philip, Cavin gives us a great moment as he methodically removes each finger individually from his leather gloves, a brittle expression on his face throughout. This character is scary, and Cavin plays it with finesse.
A couple of quibbles: For all the briskness of the direction, there are a few moments in the first act — particularly in the interactions between the Sterling and Philip characters — that bog down a little. And as much as I love the concept of Boltz’s scenic design, the action that takes place upstage farthest from the audience loses some of the intimacy, particularly because the volume sounded fainter from where I was sitting. That is the case with the dining-table scenes.
But there’s no problem hearing the dramatic moments at the end of this play that lead up to the surprising conclusion. It’s exciting to follow through to the end. You don’t have to know a thing about stamps to enjoy “Mauritius.” Greed, on the other hand, is one of those universal themes that can always set the pulse racing.