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Theater review: 'Island of Brilliance' at the Pacific Resident Theatre

December 30, 2010 | 11:00 am

Brilliance High school senior Eve Brighton (Jill Renner) pluckily drives herself to her Princeton interview through a snowstorm. But when she arrives, she’s blunt to the point of hostility. Asked why she applied, she shrugs, “My guidance counselor thought I could probably get in.” 

Eve says her role model is her sister, Emily, a “savant” with an IQ of 40 who doesn’t know how to read but can memorize any piece of literature by hearing it once. “An idiot savant,” the interviewer corrects. Eve retorts, “She kind of makes you wonder who the idiots are.”

Few can resist a kid who puts an upper-crusty Ivy League gatekeeper (the elegant Maryjane) in her place, and Renner plays Eve with wide eyes, a blissful smile, and an oddly timed but endearing giggle. Her childlike bond with her sister (Ava Bogle, who gracefully accomplishes the tricky feat of playing a character with mental limitations) hints that her self-sabotage reflects a deep ambivalence about growing up. 

The program includes a note from producer Orson Bean describing his enthusiasm for this “new play” by Dawn O’Leary, which “was totally unknown” when the director Wynn Marlow showed it to him. But in fact “Island of Brilliance” was adapted into a film, “Admissions,” in 2004; and O’Leary won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship for her screenplay in 1993. 

Its true vintage explains such puzzles as why, although “Island” is set in the present, nobody has a cellphone. When Emily begins reciting poems of unknown provenance, the girls’ mother, Martha (Nancy Linehan Charles), doesn’t Google them; she invites Eve’s English teacher, Mr. Worthy (the wonderfully patronizing and clucky William Lithgow), to tea. It should be obvious to both that Eve is the author of the poems, but Martha is so eager to believe Emily is composing them that she drags the lovesick Mr. Worthy into a folie a deux

Like a "Rebel Without a Cause" for the 1990s, “Island of Brilliance” maintains a teenager's perspective: The most daring thing you can do in this world is blow your college interview. Your poems have the power to redeem or destroy your loved ones. Anagnorisis is delivered in admissions decision letters. Such climaxes seem melodramatic, and many revelations fall flat (although one is thrillingly unexpected), yet the play still conveys the spirit of a perpetually promising young person, and the PRT’s passionate production justifies Bean and Marlow’s faith in this one.

--Margaret Gray

Island of Brilliance.” Pacific Resident Theatre, 707 Venice Blvd., Venice. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays. Dark through Jan. 5. Ends Jan. 23. $20 Thursday and Friday, $25 Saturday and Sunday. (310) 822-8392. www.PacificResidentTheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours.


 
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