I’m no guru, but I know that true happiness is elusive, that contentment is a more sustainable pleasure. I know about Newton’s Third Law of Motion, that to every action there is an equal reaction, that you get from this world what you give back to it. I get it. Consider me enlightened.
And I know that a play, regardless of its light and easy actions, its desire to be entertaining and fun, still requires a few basic components – things like character development and a story arch.
Donna Rae Davidson’s “10 Days to Happiness,” which opens O’Connell & Company’s season, its East Coast premiere, is a play that tries so hard to be profound but loses its way almost immediately. It reaches its conclusion without much discovery or surprise, and takes an awfully long time to get there.
We open on the autobiographical Donna Rae, who has just arrived at a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, unaware of its rules. Played with signature joie de vivre by Mary Kate O’Connell, Donna Rae is most elated to tell us what she hates about the place. Fair enough: it’s a change of pace. But that would be the point. Our first impression of Donna Rae is that she knows how to complain, but what else can we learn about you? What brought you here? Why do you need to go through this experience?
Besides the answers to these and plenty of other questions, the script also omits a substantial series of events that advance the plot; action and character development are crucial, and they must be explicit. Donna Rae’s conflicts run shallow. As written, you’d easily be convinced that this woman really loves her folding chair, and not, more astutely, that she suffers from anxiety that stems from, perhaps, an insecurity brought on by a childhood trauma, for instance – just making this up, for argument’s sake. As far as we know, she’s a woman who begrudgingly overcomes a week and a half of oatmeal.
Donna Rae spends most of her time complaining, and for what, the consolation of an audience’s understanding? We get it, but don’t get much else. She hates the relentless schedule of hours-long meditations. She hates the seeming lack of food at mealtime. She hates the facility’s definition of contraband: pen and paper, music, phones, and the like. She hates the fact that she has to change herself, or maybe that there even exists a solution. Her cynicism breezes past a witty punch line quickly and right into an annoying personality.
O’Connell works her butt of to sell us this story. It’s not really her fault that it doesn’t work. O’Connell’s typical presentational style works well enough, playing to the fourth wall with the needy conviction of a cabaret singer, though I wonder if she could have assumed the role more than perform it. Donna Rae’s retreat-mates occasionally stand in as a makeshift Greek chorus, responding to her internal monologue when not shuffling around in silence.
Director Anne Gayley tries to pull some fun interaction out of those moments, and they do excite a bit, but just when we approach a moment of Zen, the playwright drags us back into a whining cyclone. (While we’re at it, kudos are due to set designer John Kehoe and lighting designer Emma Schimminger, who provide a relaxing, glowing, inviting space that works wonders for us, if not for our protagonist.)
I’m not sure why this play was written, to be honest. You’d like to believe the real-life Donna Rae had some sort of realization in her meditation experience. A slightly sharper second act hints at that, though you can see it from a mile away and even then it’s not too rewarding. If the facts of the play are to be believed, she was not allowed to keep a journal during her stay. If so, the remnant memories of those 10 days amount to mere impressions of an experience.
The premise is salvageable, though it would take a lot of work – perhaps flashbacks to Donna Rae’s day-to-day life, or profiles of other retreat-mates, a nod to the “Orange Is The New Black” format. A recurring joke that this retreat isn’t a jail, despite its many rules, is not lost on us. Ironically, it’s a breathless script, and not a vow of silence, that imprisons us the most.
2 stars out of 4
Through Oct. 18, O’Connell and Company, at Park School of Buffalo, 4625 Harlem Road, Snyder. 848-0800 or oconnellandcompany.com