Christopher Demos-Brown’s new play Stripped is an absorbing examination of the complexities, the grays, in a child custody battle that is anything but black and white.
And in its Zoetic Stage world premiere at the Arsht Center’s Carnival Studio Theater, the production also vividly illustrates how the collaborative work and myriad choices of theater artists bring a playwright’s vision to colorful life.
The award-winning Demos-Brown is a lawyer as well as a gifted dramatist, and the knowledge he has gained from pro bono work in child custody cases has given Stripped a harrowing authenticity. The script also demonstrates his skill at crafting character-revealing dialogue and mixing drama with tension-softening humor.
Staged by Zoetic artistic director Stuart Meltzer, Stripped centers on the case of a little girl named Raisa, the daughter of Maria “Masha” Mikhailovich (Lindsey Corey), a young woman from Belarus who made it to the United States as the pregnant mail-order bride of a much older — and, as it turned out, violent — cop. Now on her own, Masha is working as a stripper, raking in money and saving it for Raisa’s future while living in a dump and hanging out with a minimally motivated teacher-drug dealer named Zak (Matt Stabile).
So when a miscommunication leads to toddler Raisa being left alone in the apartment and the police get called by a neighbor, it’s not so surprising that Child Protective Services takes her away from the frantic, devastated Masha.
Masha, however, is a survivor, and a fiercely determined one. She dedicates herself to getting Raisa back from Emma and Nicholas Pisaris (Margot Moreland and Chaz Mena), the affluent, educated couple chosen as Raisa’s foster parents. But Masha has formidable opponents: Child Protective Services attorney Erica Peebles (Makeba Pace), a woman with a deep personal motivation for her work; Zack, willing to bend the truth to avoid prison time; the foster parents, heretofore childless but soon deeply bonded with Raisa; and the baffling American court system which seems to heavily favor family reunification — but not in her case.
Stripped plays out in many unexpected ways. On paper, Masha reads as honest but tough, and her choice of profession (she also admits to prostitution with some of the strip club patrons) doesn’t make her a terribly sympathetic character. But in a breakthrough performance, Corey is exactly that.
Lithe and impressively athletic, she works the stripper pole and the space around it while delivering stream-of-consciousness monologues that underscore her take-no-prisoners determination. Corey also blends the softness and humor that Demos-Brown supplies into her performance, so that her work is multi-layered and impressively rich.
She has a formidable opponent in Pace’s Erica. Making her Zoetic debut, Pace delivers intense, impassioned work as a woman determined to speak truth to anyone who would compromise a child’s future. As Zack, Stabile is an appealing ne’er-do-well, a guy whose go-to behavior means taking the easy way out — even if that way is betrayal.
In addition their warm portrayals of the foster parents, Moreland and Mena respectively play the family court judge deciding Raisa’s case and the attorney appointed to represent Masha. Moreland does solid work in both roles (though she’s not yet nailing 100 percent of her lines). As foster dad Nicholas, Mena is absorbing and, at the right moment, intense. As Masha’s lawyer, he looks, sounds and moves in a completely different way, and he’s understatedly amusing (though the light Spanish accent he uses for the character comes and goes).
Ava-Riley Miles, a child actor who already has two Broadway credits, portrays an 11-year-old Raisa in the play’s final scenes. Dialogue involving the girl’s curiosity about a word Nicholas utters without thinking could have been squirm-inducing; instead, Miles, Mena and Moreland skillfully make the scene one that many a tween parent will find familiar.
In creating his first set for Zoetic, Carbonell Award-winning designer Michael McClain has used striking visual symbolism to underscore the world of the play: the oversized face of Lady Justice, blindfolded by the American flag; large “scales” that create separate areas for Masha’s apartment and the Pisaris’ home; faux marble to suggest a courthouse; and at the center of it all, the pole where Masha works and muses. Meltzer created the percussive soundscape, Rebecca Montero the lighting, Estela Vrancovich the costumes.
New play work is as challenging as it is rewarding, and Zoetic’s Stripped might have been even stronger out of the gate with some additional rehearsal time. That said, for the artists and the audience, having a smart, moving new Demos-Brown play at the Arsht is something to celebrate.