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‘Dead Certain’ at ART Station

Theater review
“Dead Certain”
Grade: B-
Through May 15. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 3 p.m. Sundays; 10:30 a.m. Wednesday (April 28). $22-$27. ART Station, 5384 Manor Drive in Stone Mountain. 770-469-1105. www.artstation.org.
Bottom line: Too much talk and not enough action, but Elizabeth Wells Berkes shines.

Bryan Brendle and Elizabeth Wells Berkes. Photo: ART Station

Bryan Brendle and Elizabeth Wells Berkes. Photo: ART Station

By Bert Osborne

With one of the two characters confined to a wheelchair, Marcus Lloyd’s “Dead Certain” isn’t the kind of psychological thriller that plays out with a lot of physical activity. It’s the kind that mainly talks about everything.

Most of the startling revelations about Elizabeth (a former ballerina) and Michael (a struggling actor) and the possibly obsessive or lecherous past deeds that unite them aren’t shown as much as told.

In a movie, no doubt, we’d see a flashback to the car crash that crippled Elizabeth. On stage, it’s not quite so exciting to hear her recounting it after the fact.

Still, in artistic director David Thomas’ ART Station production, to hear actress Elizabeth Wells Berkes recount it is quite satisfying indeed. A strong actress (“In Darfur”) too often squandered as a decorous love interest (“All the King’s Men”), her cleverly measured performance brings thoughtful insight to a character that could have been a stock eccentric.

Lloyd’s play-within-a-play device suggests a stiff-upper-lip (read, British) nod to “Deathtrap,” another cat-and-mouse drama.

But where that play crackled in the physical interaction of its characters, “Dead Certain” seems more sluggish, as if weighed down by all the exposition.

From a secluded, sparsely furnished cottage outside London, Elizabeth hires Michael to help “workshop” a play she’s written. The plot thickens as he begins to realize her play is mirroring real life, and that their paths may have crossed at least once before.

Is it “coincidence” (as she puts it) or “inevitability” (his word)? A case of deja vu or a trick of hypnosis?

It’s clear from the opening scene that they both have blood on their hands, so to speak, and “Dead Certain” gives them an awful amount of explaining to do, about who did what and when and why, or who was where on this night or that.

There isn’t much blocking involved in Thomas’ staging — the characters are stationary for most of the play — but he keeps the dialogue moving right along. Over the course of the evening, however, the couple becomes less evenly matched.

As Michael gets increasingly inebriated and Elizabeth assumes more control, the drama loses its balance and starts to feel far-fetched. Not surprisingly, under the circumstances, co-star Bryan Brendle (“Mauritius”) poses little threat. While he’s a serviceable actor, he proves to be no equal to the enterprising Berkes.

She makes the show something special. As a psychological thriller, it’s still too talky. And when the talk eventually turns to loftier issues of personal freedom, empowerment and identity, it’s only believable because Berkes sells it with such grace and authority.

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