Frame Works

Over at the Herberger Theater Center, Cathy Dresbach is playing an extraordinarily ordinary woman. In Actors Theatre's Frame 312, Dresbach is pretending to be Lynette, a typical suburbanite with a house, a yard, and two grown children -- an angst-ridden daughter hooked on antidepressants, and a greedy son whose marriage is falling apart. Lynette is concerned about mundane things: her kids' health; whether her grandchildren like her; how she'll get along after her husband's recent death. Only one thing sets Lynette apart from millions of other suburban housewives: She's the only person on Earth who owns an unexpurgated copy of the infamous Zapruder film of John F. Kennedy's assassination -- a film that proves that there was another gunman on that grassy knoll the day Kennedy was shot.

It's a fascinating construct around which author Keith Reddin has written a thoughtful family drama. He's drawn an intriguing portrait of the impact that Kennedy's death had on a nation by showing us the remnants of a typical nuclear family, 30 years later. Lynette and her family are eaten up with paranoia, greed and fear, and all have found their comfort in prescription meds and expensive houses. They're all casualties, Reddin suggests, of the demise of a hopeful nation that believed in Kennedy's Camelot.

Dresbach embodies much of the pain from that loss in a single exceptional performance. Lynette isn't a showy role, but Dresbach gives her wide range. Whether tossing off a wry line about her crafty son or delivering a sad-eyed speech about what's become of our world, she's always genuine, and shifts the play's emotional key with confidence and skill. In the scene where Lynette screens the Zapruder film for her family -- she's a former employee of Life magazine, which purchased the film and had her take notes on its contents -- Dresbach reveals Lynette's fear and isolation with fleeting facial expressions that speak volumes.

No less impressive are Ben Tyler as Lynette's doomed boss, and Christian Miller and Angela Calabrasi as Lynette's hyper-neurotic children. As the young Lynette, Morgan Hallett conveys an energetic naiveté, and Julie Cotton so effectively plays three different women, each with her own impressive voice and fetching personality, that I had to check my program to make sure it was the same actress in each role.

Jeff Thomson's scenic design is first-rate. His stationary set, a lumber-hewn outline of a tract home backed by images from the Zapruder film, is augmented with big, grainy black-and-white photographs -- of a diner, a subway car, Grand Central Station -- that swoop in from on high to set smaller scenes. Manuela Needhammer is nothing if not consistent: Her wigs never, in any production, resemble human hair, but she's effectively approximated hair styles from both the '60s and the '90s, so at least in Frame 312 her designs look like wigs from two different eras.

Under the swift and buoyant direction of Matthew Wiener, Frame 312 moves along so blithely that we're left to ponder its deeper meanings after the final curtain. Wiener has made some bad calls, too. He's punctuated so many scenes with clips of Top 40 tunes from the '60s that Frame 312 often sounds more like a pop music infomercial than a theatrical play. And the placement of one important prop is so painfully obvious that it foretells the dénouement before the story has even gotten under way. Fortunately, what we witness on the way to that conclusion is worth seeing -- a thought-provoking, well-acted meditation on what we've all become.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela