Review: "whatdoesfreemean?" Nora’s Playhouse at The Tank NYC

Tara Kennedy

  • Chief Connecticut Theatre Critic
  • Connecticut Critics Circle
  • American Theatre Critics Association

Nora’s Playhouse, a NYC-based women’s theatre collective dedicated to producing women-centric stories, brings to The Tank, whatdoesfreemean?, a world premiere work by Catherine Filloux, an award-winning playwright whose works focus on human rights and social justice themes.  Sometimes “Theater with a Message” can be preachy or heavy-handed, but this show is far from that. Visceral and impactful, whatdoesfreemean? approaches incarceration with depth and candor and a bit of whimsy.

While it might not accurately represent the journey of a typical inmate, it feels real, even when the prisoner has hallucinatory conversations with a mouse and a monk. Mary’s story is truth almost from the opening scene, thanks to authentic performances and a compelling script.     

whatdoesfreemean - Brenda Crawley, Lisa Strum - photo credit Veronica Bella.jpg

The show follows the story of Mary (Lisa Strum), a woman serving a prison sentence for a nonviolent drug offense. She befriends another inmate, Ann (Brenda Crawley), over studying for and receiving their GEDs. When Ann takes ill, Mary fights with prison authorities to try and get her friend the medical care she needs, leading Mary to end up in the segregated housing unit (SHU) – better known to the public as solitary confinement. Here, where time seems fluid, Mary works through many issues including love, loss, and bearing witness to troubling events, all in hopes of surviving her time behind bars. She has advocates in her corner to help her through - her counselor, Miss Pierotti (Liz Morgan) and her public defender, Nick (James Edward Becton) – all in hopes that – this time – the parole board will let Mary out of prison.

The performers are all excellent. Apart from Ms. Strum and Mr. Jorrell (Corrections Officer #2), everyone must play multiple characters. In the case of Ms. Morgan, I didn’t realize that she was playing both Miss Pierotti and Shanna until checking the playbill at the end of the show; her portrayal of a twitchy, over-tested lab mouse was perfect. Mr. Becton’s roles as Nick, Mary’s enthusiastic public defender, and The Floater, a teasing, creepy representation of the men in Mary’s life, demonstrate his versatility, including accents, singing, and stage movement. Mr. McCullough also plays a wide array of characters, showing that he can play a predatory corrections officer with extreme credibility. But my favorite scenes were between Ms. Strum and Ms. Crawley, who played both Ann and Mary’s mother.  Their mutual admiration and love for one another were heartwarming and genuine, a testament to both actors; the Coney Island memory sequence between Mary and her mother was especially touching. But it’s Ms. Strum who really makes this show shine. She plays Mary with such honesty and conviction that the audience is urged to root for her.

With the pizazz of NYC’s high-end shows, audiences are dazzled into forgetting the quality of the script. With the black box presentation of whatdoesfreemean? one only has the actors and the words to focus on, with the occasional projection or stage prop to help tie the scene together (projection design by Sadah Espii Proctor; scenic design by Phoebe Mauro). Ms. Filloux’s text does a wonderful job of creating a fully-developed, likable, flawed character that the audience cares about, even during the short span of the play’s run time of 80 minutes. The one disappointment was due only to the space’s limitations; I missed some of the action due to the angle of my seat and the person seated in front of me, especially the interactions between Mary and Shanna.  

When I arrived at the theater, the audience was informed of an additional treat: a talkback with forensic psychiatrist, Dr. Annette Hanson, whose clinical practice is at the Maryland Division of Corrections. After watching the performance, she provided her opinion concerning the veracity of the show: how some points rang true for her (Mary’s exploration with drawing and art), while others seemed to be exaggerated for dramatic effect because (as she pointed out) who wants to come see a play about ordinary events?

After she said that, a woman in the audience spoke up about being a former inmate and how the play felt much like her experience “on the inside;” at times, the play was difficult for her to watch. And it’s this woman’s reaction that is confirmation of the faithfulness of Ms. Filloux’s play to the experience of prison. But don’t take our word for it: come downtown and experience