Review: BCT's 'Fata Morgana' is a poetic exploration of contemporary tragedy

The beauty of Boise Contemporary Theater’s production of Jeni Mahoney’s “Fata Morgana” is in the journey.

A Fata Morgana is a mirage of a specific sort that bends reality and changes the perspective of the landscape in the desert and on the ocean.

Mahoney plays with reality in the same way with a string of deftly crafted domestic scenes — little pearls of relatively normal family dysfunction — that increase in intensity until they drop you into an ending of Medea-like proportions. (The ending won't be revealed here, but you will have plenty to talk about afterwards.)

And yet it all still seems creepily normal, even if there is a talking crow in the mix, thanks to the wonderful performance by the five actors and Amy Saltz’s spot-on direction.

“Fata Morgana” opened earlier this month and continues its world premiere run through Feb. 21. BCT is a theater that has committed to producing new American theater, from Idaho and national playwrights. This is one of its strongest efforts. 

Mahoney makes her home in New York City, where she heads the playwrights program at Playwrights Horizons/New York University Tisch School of the Arts. She also runs the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference during the summers in McCall. She received a $10,000 grant for the production from the National Endowment for the Arts, and set this Greek-tinged tragedy on the shore of a toxic lake in the Mojave Desert. Tori (Kathy McCafferty) and her husband Jack (Matthew Cameron Clark) have retreated there to escape some past tragedy.

The lake’s orange water dissolves anything that touches its surface. In a order to protect a mining company's interests, Jack’s job is to shoot birds flying overhead before they land on the lake. (Mahoney based it on the Berkeley Pit, a former open pit mine in Butte, Mont., that has filled with water.)

Tori runs the household, reads, watches TV and gets tormented by a talking crow, a puppet operated and voiced by Dwayne Blackaller, that reminds her of her failings.

Enter Morgan (Danielle Sacks), Tori’s 14-year-old niece, who has run away from the same family Tori ran from 10 years before. She is pregnant and looking for some mothering from her childless aunt, who helped raise her as a little girl.

The play takes place during the six or seven months remaining in Morgan’s pregnancy. Tori overcompensates with love and Morgan is in denial. Only Tori’s best friend Shelley (Cherene Snow) is willing to hold her accountable for the child and her future. But Morgan hopes Tori and Jack will want her baby and she’ll be free. But out in the desert, 50 miles from the clinic where Shelley is a nurse, the grocery store and the police, anything can happen.

The acting ensemble works seamlessly together. They communicate volumes through Mahoney’s spare dialogue. McCafferty and Clark strike a lovely, stoic warmth in their relationship. McCafferty’s Tori wins your support throughout, making the ending even more poignant.

Sacks captures the intensity of adolescent hormonal shifts and takes you on an emotional arc through Morgan’s journey toward motherhood.

Snow is powerful as Shelley, the truth-teller of the piece. She clearly sees the reality as it unfolds while the others are stymied by their individual Fata Morganas.

Blackaller also brings a lurking physicality to his crow, which functions like a minimalist Greek chorus chiming in with bits that foretell the future.

Rick Martin’s set is perfectly dingy, a ramshackle home decorated with thrift store furniture and 1970s kitsch. The walls, stripped to the sticks, expose a long strip of luminous plastic that reflects orange in daylight, blue at night, under Raquel Davis’s lighting, giving the set an eerie glowing quality.

This is a stellar first production of an exceptional play that deserves multiple future productions. It will be interesting to follow Mahoney’s and the play’s journey from here.

Boise Contemporary Theater’s “Fata Morgana” continues its run through Feb. 21. Shows are at 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, and 2 p.m. Feb. 7, 14 and 21, at BCT, 854 Fulton St.

Click here to purchase tickets: $32 Fridays-Saturdays, $26 Wednesdays-Thursdays, matinees and for all student tickets. Phone: 331-9224, ext. 205.