|Marti Gobel. Photo by Ross Zentner.|
There are certainly actors who can pull off the Dickensian feat of playing nearly two dozen characters in a single evening. Done right, it’s accomplished nimbly and elegantly—the slouch of a shoulder or the dip into a growly vocal register helping to populate the stage with supporting players of different generations or genders. But Marti Gobel’s remarkable performance in Renaissance Theatreworks’ Neat goes far beyond these skilled tricks of the trade.
True, in the course of Charlayne Woodard’s 90-minute play, Gobel cannily captures the spirited cadence of a preacher before his flock, the impish wonder of a little girl at play, and even the visceral crack of a police baton breaking down the doors of a high school auditorium. And in doing so, Woodard’s autobiographical story comes alive with texture of a rich novel, capturing the worlds of the rural South—where Neat, Woodard’s aunt was born—and suburban upstate New York, where Woodard and her aunt experienced the tumult of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
In Woodard’s writing and Gobel’s performance, these times and places are vivid and often satisfyingly familiar. But the heart of Neat is in the fully realized characters of Neat and Charlayne, and their touching and evolving relationship.
Neat suffered brain damage as an infant, and came north to live with Woodard’s family when Woodard was starting high school. The great truths of Neat happen in the moments when Charlayne is trying to balance her own adolescent concerns and impulses with this strange woman who has made a claim on part of her world.
And this is where Gobel truly shines. Her portrait of Neat is a study in concentration that achieves a kind of visual poetry in the palsied gestures, slurred speech, and wide-eyed innocence. Even more subtly, her vision of the teen-aged Charlayne–navigating the milestones of her life along with the racial minefield of her times—is a quiet tour de force of true acting “inhabitation.” Listen to how she manipulates her voice, for instance, ramping up the pitch and volume so that the girl’s proclamations are charged by the self-imposed confidence that is a kind of teen-age armor. And watch again how she melts into retelling the story of her first boyfriend, the armor stripped away to reveal pure, giggly libido.
There are dozens of moments like this in Gobel’s brilliant performance, but it never becomes an acting exercise or an excuse to show off technical chops. Gobel, with a certain and sure hand from director Susan Fete, has created a beautiful and vibrant story that finds many universal truths in the particulars of one woman’s life.