10/11/2012 12:44 am ET Updated Dec 10, 2012

"Harper Regan" Review: Hard Realities Behind a Smile

Harper Regan, the title character of Simon Stephens' searing play now at the Atlantic Theater Company, is an amiable, curious, talkative woman who is always smiling. It is a friendly smile, and in Mary McCann's superb performance, it is a smile that elicits confidences, even from strangers. It is also a smile that masks a turmoil raging deep within her.

When the audience first meets Harper, she is asking for a few days off from work so she can visit her seriously ill father up in Manchester. Her boss, a boorish lout who runs a trucking company in the London suburb of Uxbridge and could have stepped straight out of The Office, not only refuses her request but threatens to fire her if she goes.

On her way home, Harper has a chance meeting with a young black man who is a student at the same college as her daughter, Sarah, though he does not know her. When she arrives, Harper's unemployed husband, Seth, has been helping Sarah cram for a geology exam. Sarah, a Goth wannabe who knows more about glaciers than anyone but a polar bear would want to know, says she is going to the pub for a party. Sarah and her mother quarrel; Sarah stalks out; Harper follows her and they make amends. It is a snapshot of a normal, loving family. Or is it?

When the audience next sees Harper she is in the Manchester suburb of Stockport being comforted by a chatty hospital aide holding a box of Kleenex. Without telling her husband, daughter, or her boss, Harper caught the next plane to Manchester only to arrive too late to see her father alive. At this point, the mosaic of Harper's well-ordered world begins to come unglued and her mental state hangs in the balance, though one would be hard-pressed to notice it.

Harper Regan is full of surprises, though upon reflection they may not be all that surprising. There is a reason, for example, that Seth is unable to find work, but the audience only discovers it at the end of the first act. And Harper's two-year estrangement from her mother is only explained once Harper visits her after her father's death.

With the death of her father, Harper is forced to confront the possibility of some unpalatable truths. As she struggles with those truths, an impulsive and even violent streak that Harper had kept submerged begins to seep out. There is an encounter in a pub with a closet neo-Nazi and another in a hotel with a respectable married father of three that would surprise even her closest friends.

Stephens is a subtle playwright whose delicately crafted scenes are deceptively dramatic. Harper Regan is one of those plays that at first may seem as though nothing much is happening, but in which everything is happening. Under Gaye Taylor Upchurch's studiously underplayed direction, a splendid cast of 11 make each stop on Harper's journey of self-discovery a small gem.

McCann delivers a brilliant study of contradictions as Harper tries to cope with her regret that she never got to tell her father she loved him while at the same time face the realization that he was not the man she thought he was. Her performance is a quiet tour-de-force.
Gareth Saxe is excellent as Seth, a mild-mannered man who is trying to live through a shame that rightly or wrongly has changed not only his life but the lives of his family. His curtain monologue is elegiac. Madeleine Martin as Sarah gives a fine portrait of a self-assertive teen who has not totally abandoned her childhood.

There is not a weak link in the entire cast, and Stephen Tyrone Williams, Jordan Lage, Mahira Kakkar, and Christopher Innvar offer especially good turns.