Honesty might be a virtue, but its price, vulnerability, proves steep for some in Courtney Baron’s “Eat Your Heart Out,” a forthright exploration of the demands of unfulfilled desire. Directed by Adam Greenfield, “Eat Your Heart Out” is the fourth play to open in the 36th Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville. It runs through March 31 in the Bingham Theatre.
Baron’s structure calls to mind a recent film trend of multiple concurrent narratives for characters whose lives intersect in meaningful ways (“Crazy, Stupid, Love,” “Love, Actually”), but this intense and compact play focuses on three main stories—a mother and daughter struggle to connect, an overweight teen pines for her best friend and an affluent couple seek to adopt a baby after fertility treatments fail.
The show opens in an art museum with Nance (Kate Eastwood Norris), a lonely single mother trying her hand at online dating with the clearly nervous Tom (Alex Moggridge). Meanwhile, feisty yet defensive Evie (Sarah Grodsky) dreams of a “teen flick revenge” on her high school antagonists with her best friend and unrequited crush Colin (Jordan Brodess, a 2011 graduate of the acting apprentice company). Across town, Alice (Kate Arrington) and Gabe (Mike DiSalvo) prepare their immaculate home for a visit from their adoption agency.
The story unfolds somewhat out of chronological order, which allows us to see that Nance is the common denominator. She’s Evie’s mother, disapproving and desperate for a happier daughter, as well as the social worker conducting the interview that could move Alice and Gabe to the next phase of their adoption.
Nance isn’t the usual plucky single mom, though. Her relationship with her daughter has disintegrated as she’s devoted herself to helping other families grow. She’s most confident in her work, but when Alice and Gabe allow the facade of their perfect life to slip during the home study, Nance’s professional demeanor suffers and her own vulnerabilities are brought to light.
Norris takes on the demanding role of a brittle yet oddly sympathetic character with great strength, daring us to embrace Nance even as she reveals some truly unlikable sides of her character. Her scenes with Grodsky are charged with the fall-out of intimate disappointments and cruel insights mothers and daughters can levy with such alacrity.
Grodsky is the standout of this ensemble, and she commands attention the way only a caustic teenager can. She and Brodess nail that nervous adolescent energy between friends who aren’t sure if they can be more.
What Evie needs is unconditional love, but what she gets from Nance and Colin are bewildered suggestions for self-improvement, like she’s a fixer-upper who just needs the right jumpstart for her extreme makeover. They’re not wrong, but they’re not right, either.
Colin’s monologues, in which he recites increasingly desperate emails to his out-of-state girlfriend, are funny and delivered with style, but they don’t add much to his character or the story that we don’t already get from his scenes with Evie.
Greenfield keeps the pace brisk and tensions high throughout the show (80 minutes with no intermission), so fans of traditional narrative might find the end of the play a bit jarring as it closes on the cusp of many breakthroughs, none of which are expressed fully. A tidy ending would have betrayed the honest messes the characters created of their lives and relationships, but a stronger resolution to follow several extremely emotional points of catharsis would have been welcome.