By Tiffany Raymond, ‘Burgh Vivant
Off the WALL produces Lissa Brennan’s new two-person play, “Hoard.” Given off the WALL tends to produce a lot of one-person shows, the 100% increase in onstage talent is both a surprise and a delight. The commitment to duality extends offstage as the show also has two directors, Kira Simring and Brian Reager.
“Hoard” is set in contemporary Pittsburgh and takes place in real-time. It’s a 90-minute encounter between shut-in hoarder Viv Donahue and Claire, an “organizational life consultant.” Viv’s adult daughter has hired Claire to help clear her mother’s house of ever encroaching piles. The set is towering with dilapidated cardboard boxes, teetering newspaper stacks, and a proliferation of life’s detritus – an empty birdcage, crumbled plastic bags, and ringed coffee pots. You keep waiting for roaches to scuttle out as extras, and you feel compelled to scan for mouse droppings. That being said, for anyone who’s ever watched an episode of “Hoarders” on A&E, it still feels like Tucker Topel’s set and scenic design is “hoarder light.” Walkways are still fully navigable, and Viv’s story and psychology would only be enhanced with an even more buried alive design.
Before the play even starts, Simring and Reager choose to set the scene with raucously loud rock music. While we haven’t yet met Viv (Virginia Wall Gruenert), the music feels overpowering and out of sync with a household where an overstuffed armchair hermetically sealed with a crocheted blanket is the living room centerpiece. The music is indeed a miss.
Luckily, Simring and Reager redeem themselves with four steady hands in guiding the performances of Gruenert and Claire (Erika Cuenca). Gruenert finds that delicate balance of making Viv as forgettable as anyone you might pass in the frozen food aisle at Giant Eagle, but because we get to spend time with her, we also get to see beyond the reach for frozen pizza. Viv is upper middle-aged, overweight, and wears frumpy shapeless clothes with elasticized waistband pants. Her dyed red hair is so short it doesn’t even seem like roots could show, and yet they do. Like any hoarder, there are deeper psychological underpinnings to her compulsion. From the outset, she exudes a nervous energy that expresses itself in repetition, immediately insisting Claire call her “just Viv…Viv, Viv, Viv, Viv, Viv” as opposed to Mrs. Donahue.
Claire is Viv’s foil. Cuenca exudes professionalism with sensible black heels, a white button-down, and pinstripe slacks. In fact, she almost seems too buttoned down and well-dressed for a woman who’s about to help a hoarder clean out her home. However, her clothing establishes the walled difference Claire wants to maintain between her professional self and who she genuinely is, a crack Viv widens into a crevasse in the course of the play.
The play evolves from clean-up session to psychological deep dive. Viv strikes a deal with Claire; Viv gets ask her a question when she gets rid of something. Interestingly, despite the towering trash heaps, the first item Viv chooses to part with is a usable one – a colander, but it’s a nice visual metaphor for the play. The colander retains that which we need while allowing the unusable to pass through.
One naturally expects Brennan’s script to focus on Viv as the hoarder. However, Brennan nicely develops both characters, arguably making Claire the more interesting one. We learn about Viv’s traumas, but Claire peels back her own layers via the Q&A or “give and take, take and give” as Claire calls it. The two strangers gradually expose a level of raw vulnerability that generally works, but feels rushed at moments given the real-time, 90-minute duration. When Claire swears and drops an f bomb for the first time, it immediately feels jarring and inauthentic as she’s been operating at arm’s distance business mode.
For Yinzers in the crowd, the play delights with regional nuggets like “redd up” and references to a Pittsburgh toilet. However, it’s not so colloquial as to be inaccessible to a beyond the Burgh audience. The Pittsburgh toilet becomes an educational moment for Viv as she describes this bizarre architectural feature of the standalone basement toilet to an appropriately puzzled Claire, a Boston transplant.
Redd up and head out to Off the Wall’s production of “Hoard” plays through March 21st at the Carnegie Stage, 25 W. Main Street, Carnegie, PA 15106. For more information and to purchase tickets, click here.