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at the Road Theatre Company

Webster's Dictionary gives one definition of swimming as "to surmount difficulties: not go under… [to] sink or swim, live or die, survive or perish." In Steve Totland's new play, that's exactly what a small-town heartland housewife frantically attempts to do. In an ill-conceived effort to save the paper-thin inviolability of her drowning 10-year marriage to David, Denise (Shana Gagnon) creates a massive riptide of a lie to keep herself peddling like crazy against the currents and keep her head above water.

It's been said that audiences miss up to 30 percent of information given to them, making the most intriguing part of this tale everything the playwright cunningly withholds, forcing his spectators to that bloodsport called marriage to dig in and focus if they want to stay afloat and unravel the mystery of what's gone wrong with this toxic relationship. Denise's lie creates more havoc than resolution to the crisis that destroyed David's career and tests the couple's commitment to each other, but what that crisis is doesn't become clear until halfway through the play.

What director Meryl Friedman has going for her in the effort to make Totland's clever concept work is crisply effective dialogue and an exceptional ensemble of actors, particularly Gagnon, who must endure a nightly emotional unraveling so sincere and heartfelt that it could be dangerous to her health. Tamara Zook has one indelible scene as a distraught mother; as the couple's best friends, Chet Grissom and Heather Sher couldn't be better. Shaun O'Hagan does the best he can with the difficult task of making David's actions comprehensible, but here lies the problem with Totland's efforts. There is something so glaringly unlikable and slimy about this character that it's impossible to fathom any compassion for him and, in turn, difficult to be sympathetic and maintain interest in Denise's quest to hang onto him. This is further exacerbated by the play's final moments, going back in time to illustrate the early promise of their relationship; by this time in the story line, the inclusion of this scene is just mean-spirited, like rubbing salt in wounds that obviously have no chance of healing.

Presented by and at the Road Theatre Company, 5108 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Thu.-Sat. 8 p.m., Sun. 2 p.m. Jan. 19-Mar. 24. (866) 811-4111.

Reviewed by Travis Michael Holder

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