Etan Frankel’s "Paralyzed" has finally hit the stage at Florida Studio Theatre. COVID delayed it but didn’t kill it. It’s now FST’s latest Stage III production. So what’s the playwright’s point? I’ll get back to you on that. But here’s the basic story. Or stories…
Leigh (Rachel Moulton) is a bit of a control freak with OCD tendencies. She’s got a high IQ and two doctoral degrees, in economics and statistics. Leigh loves math because it’s eternal, predictable and unchanging. She hides from real life because it doesn’t always add up.
Lee (Alexander Stuart) is a good-natured good ol' boy. In the brains department, he’s average. No genius, no dummy. In the brawn department, Lee is a hard-charging, rising football star. In high school, the gridiron becomes his happy place. After that, he’s planning a line drive to college football and then the NFL. Off the field, Lee doesn't score many touchdowns.
Lee and Leigh both get a head start on reaching their dreams. Both crash and burn almost immediately.
Leigh dreams of being a do-gooder. Anne Frank’s diary has always haunted her — especially after she learned of the diarist’s pointless death. If President Roosevelt had bombed the train tracks to Bergen-Belsen, Frank might have survived. But Roosevelt (and many others) did nothing. Frank died a month before the camp’s liberation.
Leigh’s determined to do all she can for the Anne Franks of the world. In the mid-1990s, the International Money Fund hires her to coordinate aid for Rwanda. She does, and the IMF sends millions to ease suffering and save lives. Instead, it underwrites the Hutu’s instruments of death in their genocidal slaughter of the Tutsis. Leigh feels responsible — and guilty as hell. She quits her lofty IMF job and becomes a nobody at a junior college. While Leigh still tries to make a difference, every good deed gets punished.
Lee dreams of being the next Bo Jackson. But during one Clemson Tigers football practice, his smash-mouth play paralyzes his teammate Brandon. Lee shrugs off guilt. Legal play, not his fault. That’s football, baby. But everyone else blames and shuns him. Lee quits the team, quits school and just plain quits. Given that football is his identity, that’s soul suicide. Lee could’ve been a contender. Now he’s a bum. He gets to marry Carrie, his high school heartthrob, because she feels sorry for him. Her pity wears off — and she dumps him. After that, it gets worse.
Leigh and Lee share snippets of their hard-luck stories. He tells his tale; she tells hers. Their disjointed soliloquies gradually converge. The force pulling them together? An apparent suicide note that Leigh found behind a hotel toilet on a very bad night. It seems to be Brandon’s note — the teammate Lee put in a wheelchair with a clothesline tackle.
Leigh couldn’t help the 800,000 Tutsi victims. Now there’s a chance she can help Brandon — and she’s determined to try. Using all her math skills, she relentlessly tracks him down.
Lee is divorced, rejected, unemployed, homeless and vilified. He’s on a drunkard’s walk with no direction home. Leigh’s on a mission from God with a clear destination. Two very different paths — and they’re both in Georgia. Their worlds will soon collide.
That’s the bare bones of Frankel’s fable. These dry bones seemed dead in 2020 — now they’re dancing around at FST. Their skeletal gavotte is witty, funny, satiric, frightening, metaphorical, philosophical and existential. But it’s not a Hallmark Special.
Lee and Leigh don’t check all the likeability boxes. He’s a jock; she’s a brainiac. He’s self-centered, male chauvinist; she’s self-contained and not a people person. What’s in their souls? In real life, you wouldn’t want to know. You’d keep Lee and Leigh at arm’s length and not invite them to parties. But the soul is all Frankel cares about. Like it or not, he shows you what Leigh and Lee are made of. And makes you care.
Meg Gilbert honors the playwright’s intention. She directs his soulful Odyssey with unsentimental empathy. There’s very little “set,” or sense of physical space. Leigh and Lee exist in a Phantom Zone of self-revelation. They’re in the dark, until the spotlight hits. Then they speak. And that’s it. Two souls talking. In a dimension of words.
Moulton’s portrayal of Leigh in “Paralyzed” is radically different from her role in “Babel.” A completely different person … wow! I guess it’s called great acting. As a critic I am used it, but it’s still impressive. Stuart’s Lee is also refreshingly original. Having seen a heaping helping of Dixie dramas, I’ve grown accustomed to derivative, second-hand, phony-baloney Southern accents. Stuart’s Georgia accent is convincing and authentic. His character is, too. Good job, son. Good job.
This play is gripping. Despite the black comedy, it isn’t a happy-happy joyride. It gets harrowing at times. But never boring.
Frankel’s a fine writer. “Paralyzed” has a cunning, recursive structure — with a whiz-bang payoff. Great dialogue, well-written characters. Yeah, it’s all very clever. Heartbreaking, too! But what’s this playwright up to? Since you asked …
He’s making an existential coin toss.
Heads: Our universe has meaning and order. It also bends towards justice. You can’t escape the long arm of the Law of Karma. In the end, the pain you take is equal to the pain you make. Human responsibility is infinite. So do the right thing. Or you’ll be punished.
Tails: The universe is one big chaotic crapshoot. There’s no plan. And nobody’s running the show. Life is absurd. Life isn’t fair. Life is also suffering. (Anyone who says differently is selling you something.) Bad things happen? It’s not bad karma; it’s bad luck. So do what you feel. And don’t feel guilty about it.
So which is it?
“Paralyzed” offers no sophomoric answers. (And don’t ask me. I don’t know how the can opener works.)
Frankel doesn’t hand you the meaning of life on a plate. He hints that life has meaning. Sometimes. He also hints that life is absurd. Sometimes.
Based on this play, life is filled with moments of random horror. Life is also filled with impossible coincidences and moments of grace. It’s not one or the other. It’s both.
To quote Blanche DuBois, “Sometimes there’s God.”
That’s good enough for me.