REVIEW: Cast of characters deliver on Simon Stephens’ levels of emotion in Next Stage’s ‘Harper Regan’

The next stage you visit should be the Next Stage.

The little upstairs space at the State Theatre, affectionately known as “The Attic,” harbors its share of hidden little gems of stagecraft, to which one should avail oneself. One such, without reservation, is Next Stage’s production of “Harper Regan,” which opened Thursday.

Its creator, award-winning English playwright Simon Stephens, flies under the radar of most American theater companies. Despite more than 25 works staged over 15 years throughout Europe, this production is only the fourth one stateside.

Director Robert W. Schneider insisted on doing it when approached by Next Stage producers Jay Shuchter and Mary Skees Young.

And with good reason. Stephens’ writing style is oddly simple but delightfully mesmerizing. In “Harper” he follows the mind’s natural meanderings, capturing when it leaps or retreats. What’s revealed is how positively wonderful, ordinary, fatally flawed and beautiful we all are.

So the real challenge for the production team was finding 11 players who could deliver on those parts.

Harper Regan, the lead character, is a woman who’s entering her mid-life years and fraught with a calamitous stew of unpleasant situations — a nasty boss who alternately goes off on tempestuous tirades then spookily chums up, a husband out of work who’s friendly but distant, an uncommunicative teen daughter, an estranged mother and a father who is dying. When the boss makes it clear that taking a few days off to travel to see her father will cost Harper her job, she begins to reexamine her life and must decide what to do. Her decision to make the trip without telling a soul sets off a chain of events that test her own convictions about who she is and what is important in life.

Susan Riddiford-Shedd is intriguing throughout as the complex and troubled but oddly confident Harper. She evokes a shy girl who never completely grew up, a wife and mother who keeps having a go at it, as well as a curious stranger who can get anyone to share more than they normally would about their own imperfect situation.

The line between emotional connection and the barriers we erect can be razor thin, Stephens aptly demonstrates, often with the viewer’s optimistic heart in his hands.

Harper’s two-day adventure becomes a stream-of-consciousness odyssey; she arrives at the hospital and learns her father has already died. There is the comforting nurse (played with humor by Torry Shepherd) who has her own issues, a come-on from a studly younger lounge lizard (Jody Hesley), and an unlikely online-sourced hookup with a kind older gentleman (Lloyd Short). Then there is Harper’s reluctant visit to her mother, which churns up a stormy past and puts perspective on Harper’s rocky relations with her own daughter.

In the end, Harper returns to her family. As she recounts her experiences to her husband with total frankness, she has little left to lose, and there is a tenuous moment that seems eternal while one waits and watches for the husband’s reaction. If they stick together, they will have to carve out a new reality.

In between scenes, the characters from Harper’s life reappear together in the semi-darkness to echo phrases from their past conversations and rearrange large cubes that form the simple set, creating an aural and visual dimension of the swirling thoughts in Harper’s mind.

Each supporting role is well cast and solidly played. One admires and feels a knowing of each of them, despite some aspects that may irk or repulse.

Tom McClary personifies the boss one would love to hate, who seems also to be searching in vain — including in smarmy online venues — for satisfaction that his work does not bring.

Chris Hults is strangely charming as Harper’s plain but upbeat husband who loves his family but holds his deeper emotions within. Julia Laplante is wonderful as their bright, yet generationally detached daughter coming of age, who deflects Harper’s efforts at meaningful conversation.

Chazie Bly plays a jaded and coarse yet sensitive engineering student who Harper impulsively engages in conversation shortly before and after her trip.

Gail Alberini is disturbingly engrossing as Harper’s alternately doting and vicious mother, right down to the red, rhinestone-studded glasses and the tongue that touches her upper lip between verbal barbs. Rick Gilmore is the mother’s affable younger new husband and handyman.

A fine surprise is Sebastian Arroyo, who plays the handyman’s genuine though verbally and physically challenged apprentice, Mahesh. He seems to be the only person who has no restraints on expressing an unconditional love.

Pat Corey’s thoughtful costume selections help convey each character. John Hruschka’s simple set pieces — eight large movable cubes — easily morph into the many different scenes.

Stephens did not shy away from using strong language here, but it’s realistic, not gratuitous.