Jeff Storer, artistic director of Manbites Dog Theater, has a penchant for plays that probe matters of identity, family and community, and he directs them with rigorous compassion. His ongoing search for fresh work for the theater takes him to the annual Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, Ky., which is where he discovered A. Rey Pamatmat's sweet and sad coming-of-age story, currently running in Durham.
Storer is also a professor in Duke's Department of Theater Studies, which is co-producing Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them, and that is where he found the three young actors who command the stage with astonishing aplomb. Andy Chu (Kenny) is a theater major, and Jacob W. Tobia (Benji) has stage experience, too. But Wanda Jin, who plays Edith, was cast straight out of Storer's introductory acting class.
She appears to be fearless as an actress. It's fascinating to watch this confident person create the 12-year-old Edith, with her fearful center and fearless, masking exterior. Edith lives with her 16-year-old brother Kenny, somewhere in the back of beyond in the middle of the country. They've been abandoned, essentially, by their father, who rarely does more than put money in an account for them. Kenny takes care of everything, but Edith has taken on the security and defense of their domain: She's a big girl. She has a bow and arrows, and a bolt-action rifle. Along with her stuffed frog, she patrols the perimeter and scans the horizon for enemies and strangers, keeping lookout from the barn. Kenny tempts her down with sandwiches and cajoles her into behavior that will keep the nosy neighbors and child protective services away. They are all each other has.
Until Kenny makes friends with Benji in math class. And they fall in love, and lust (the scene where Benji hauls a marked dictionary over to Kenny's to show him that "there's a word for that!" a scientific, nonjudgmental word, is funny, touching and beautifully handled). Benji's arrival changes the dynamic between Kenny and Edith, but—after Edith interviews Benji at arrowpoint—for the better. Edith, for all she's still a child, has already acquired some very adult wisdom. Once Benji passes her tests, he is family, period.
The only place the play is a little heavy-handed is in its contrasting of Benji's home situation with Kenny and Edith's. Where the latter are left alone and untended, Benji's prying mother watches him very closely. The piece would be subtler if the gulf between the two families were not quite so wide, but it plays out well anyway because the parents never appear onstage—we feel their presence just out of sight. (This is another thing Storer does so well as a director—making us know characters we never lay eyes on.) Benji's mother has a conniption when she finds a note from Benji to Kenny, and rejects him completely. It is only after he turns up, shattered but defiant as only a 16-year-old in love can be, to take shelter with Kenny and Edith that their real situation is slowly revealed. The first act, while charming in itself, takes a little while to set everything up, but the second sends the riches of good dramatic writing and good theater craft right into our laps. The entire play is crammed with incident, each of which limns a different facet of reality while prodding us toward the next shift in view.
The clear, well-paced direction and impressive acting are bolstered by the familiar design and technical team: Derrick Ivey's tripartite set is functional and attractive; he also did the costumes. The effective lighting design is by Chuck Catotti, and the excellent sound design by Marc Maximov (a frequent Indy contributor), with Erik S. Benson as technical director. Some of these folks have been working together for the 25 years of brave theater-making in search of liberty, love and compassion that Manbites celebrates this season, and it shows in the smoothness of the presentation.