Strong themes are thoughtfully expressed in Ann Randolph's funny and heartbreaking "Squeeze Box." Throughout her 1 hour, 45 minute, one-woman performance, Randolph deftly presents her skewed, complex and ultimately sympathetic life view, occasionally eliciting concurrent laughs and winces. Directed by Susan Forbes, the show resonates both during and long after the performance.
The title refers to the accordion played by Harold, a man whom "Ann," the main character, has recently begun seeing. But it has multiple meanings. Life is really a squeeze box, where one must deal with one's situation. The shelter for homeless mentally ill women where Ann works the graveyard shift is a squeeze box for its residents. Ann is virtually trapped in the job, too, she explains, as no one else wants it.
Upon Neil Radice's set, bare but for a chair, a guitar and a banjo, Randolph quickly establishes a main theme: music. Singing a plaintive song her mother sang as they drove to visit a childhood neighbor, Ann says that she was inspired by this mother's relationship with one of her kids, who was mentally ill. By 16, she envisioned herself as an Angelina Jolie/Mother Teresa-like figure.
But she ends up working this job, where she longs for "something else." Contradictions include Ann's judgment and envy of others; she both thinks people are losers and is sympathetic toward them. This doesn't stop her from skewering various types and satirizing the well intentioned, the artsy and the self-involved along the way.
Randolph's physical self adds to her performance's conviction. Wide hips and endless legs form a base from which her expressive upper body and changeable face morph to forge drama, humor and a plethora of impressions. And her fast talking packs worlds. With minimal props, or none, she gives poignant character portrayals. The showcase is Brandy, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking, schizophrenic, crack-addled prostitute/shelter resident.
During the show, which is presented without intermission, Ann lustily reveals some of her turn-ons: guys who melt at music; guys with body odor; guys who look like Jesus.
Shame and pride in her job, fear and confidence, all make themselves evident when she first meets Harold. And after their first sexual encounter, she is resentful that he can get up to compose music. "What song will I sing?" she queries.
The show is highly literate. Ann frequently quotes John Muir. Some of her most influential authors include Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Laura Ingalls Wilder. Brahms, Mozart, Simon and Garfunkel and Aaron Copland are among the other cultural touchstones.
Randolph can also make classic stand-up jokes. About "Activity Hour" at the shelter, where she had to lead games of tag: "It's not really fun for paranoid people to play a game where they are chased around by something called 'it.' "
As another main theme, the notion of progress is explored. She reveals that she embellishes residents' progress notes at work, yet she feels that her own life lacks progress. However, the play comes full circle, and it turns out that she did what she set out to do: help people, and in the course of it, help herself.
Review: 3 1/2 stars (out of four)
Presented by Pandora's Box Theatre and Empire State College at Alleyway Theatre through Feb. 19.