Anna is fine…just fine! Her words, vocal inflection, and eyes aggressively insist that she is the model of mental stability. “Anna will remain balanced. Don’t you worry,” she attempts to reassure her husband (a task somewhat undermined by her use of the third person). Anna has a lot to prove, considering she was just discharged from the mental hospital to which her husband committed her after discovering that she had been poisoning his food to prevent him from meeting his girlfriend — who just happens to be the much younger daughter of Anna’s boss. But that’s all behind her, and the new meds are definitely working!
Anna (played with unsettling cheer by Rose Byrne) is the protagonist of Simon Stone’s new adaptation of Medea, the Euripides tragedy that still manages to shock audiences 2,400 years later. Stone has transposed this story of an ancient Greek adventurer and his jilted sorceress wife to a modern setting, with middle-class American characters (it is now making its US debut at Brooklyn Academy of Music). It’s a brutally effective assertion that the mythic echoes through modernity, and that unreason still holds godlike sway over our lives.
The marriage of Anna and Lucas (Byrne’s real-life partner, Bobby Cannavale) is all but over when the play begins, not that she is ready to admit it. While Lucas has sole custody of their two sons (Jolly Swag and Orson Hong, the night I attended), he has agreed for them to stay with Anna on certain nights. He has even decided to stay with Anna and the kids her first night back (less out of affection, it seems, than fear). “I’m going to win you back,” she promises him in the first scene, and we brace for impact.
And after all of the time and energy Anna has invested into her life with Lucas, we can understand why she is not ready to concede defeat, especially to Clara (Madeline Weinstein plays the new squeeze with an overweening sense of entitlement, tempered by the sweetest rich girl smile). As Anna tells it, she was the head of a pharmaceutical research lab when they started dating, and Lucas was a lowly assistant. Thanks to her guidance, his career is soaring — meanwhile, she has been barred from medical practice. This news is delivered by Clara’s dad, Christopher (Dylan Baker, portraying an oily pharma executive, a worthy successor to Creon). He wants Lucas to marry his daughter, and he is willing to commit considerable resources to make it happen.
Against what appears to be a conspiracy by mediocre men, Byrne makes Anna’s smoldering rage feel, if not rational, at least fathomable. She struggles to contain a deluge of resentment behind the dam of her toothy smile. When it spills out in the form of anguished screams, it is fearsome and painfully relatable. I’ve been there, and maybe you have, too.
Stone also directs, and his sleek minimalist staging foregrounds the performances, which are excellent. With no slack to be found anywhere, scenes bleed one into another on Bob Cousins’s bare white set, which looks like it was lifted from an Apple ad. An D’Huys’s vibrant costumes pop against this blank canvas, while Julia Frey’s video design allows for close-up shots of Anna’s exhausted eyes. An arresting scenic effect conveys the menacing trickle of time and fate, so terrifying to Americans who believe we always have a choice.
It’s not lost on me that Anna is both a scientist and doctor, two professions adept at cheating fate and bending the natural world to the human will. “I knew what I was doing. If I wanted to kill you I would have,” she coldly reassures Lucas about his low-level poisoning, sounding very much like the overconfident granddaughter of a god. Against Anna’s diabolical mastery of the elements and dogged determination to win (or at least ensure that everyone else loses), Cannavale’s easily manipulated, ever-softening Lucas is thoroughly outmatched.
The state can only do so much to protect us from the wrath of people like Anna (Jordan Boatman appears poised yet helpless as a friendly social worker). And it is a comforting lie to relegate stories like Medea to the realm of mythology (Victor Almanzar makes a memorably chilling cameo as a bookstore owner who assesses the carnage in Ovid’s Metamorphoses as, “No more messed up than anything that happens in the real world”). Violent passion lives within even the most seemingly rational among us, as astronaut Lisa Nowak showed in 2007 when she drove across country to assault the woman who stole her man. No pharmaceutical wizardry will ever be able to fully tame those feelings, seemingly implanted in us by malevolent gods. Medea is a startling and timely reminder that we aren’t as in control of the situation as we like to think — not nearly.