An Honest Mistake: Purple Rose Theatre’s “Human Error” Uses Comedy and Relationships to Bridge the Nation’s Growing Political Divide
It’s no secret, this is a divided country. The chasm has widened between liberal and conservative, rural and urban, and religious and not so much. We don’t talk to each other; we scream at each other.
Playwright Eric Pfeffinger takes this disturbing truth and imagines what would happen if right meets left under unusual circumstances in Human Error, a comedy having its Michigan debut at the Purple Rose Theatre Company in Chelsea.
Madelyn and Keenan, described as NPR-listening, latte-sipping blue staters, have gone to a fertility clinic in hopes of starting a family. Unfortunately, as a nervous doctor tells them, their fertilized embryo has been implanted in another woman’s uterus.
Heather and Jim, described as small-government, churchgoing, card-carrying NRA members, agree to meet with Madelyn and Keenan, and after discovering they don’t have horns, Heather agrees to give the liberal couple the baby when it’s born.
Director Lynch R. Travis and his uniformly excellent cast do a good job of balancing Pfeffinger’s mix of broad comedy and heartfelt connections. The set is simple and spare. White chairs become a car, storage bins, and love seats. The stage backdrop is a set of curved gray-white walls for easy entries and exits. The audience is not distracted by scenery from the point the playwright hopes to make.
Human Error moves from raw caricatures to more nuanced views of the couples as they honestly try to reckon with their obvious differences. The concept is somewhat undermined by being too centered on a set of particular cliches when, in fact, the motivations, influences, and choice of news sources (Fox News, NPR, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, or The New York Times) vary across a wide spectrum.
But Pfeffinger’s sense of humor, his usually on-point punchlines, and his way of setting up moments that either bring together or pull the couples further apart are effective.
The cast also does a fine job of making the characters become more human as they interact with each other.
Meghan VanArsdalen’s Madelyn is a proud Ann Arbor leftie. She’s outraged that her embryo is in another woman's uterus. She’s also unhappy about the upscale neighborhood of look-alike McMansions.
VanArsdalen brings the energy of a young woman still trying to define herself. She recently left a job at the university and has become a full-time yoga instructor. She’s a bit uncertain, but positive she doesn’t want her baby in the home of a “gun nut.” VanArsdalen does a good job of balancing Madelyn’s naivety with her determination to make the life she wants.
The conservative Heather is a surprisingly earthy, calm, and reasonable mother of four. Kristin Shields takes the cliche of the stay-at-home “domestic engineer” and plays a woman who is mostly content but has her moments of doubt.
But in her budding friendship with Madelyn, she becomes a mentoring mother who calmly informs Madelyn that motherhood is not a part-time occupation. Shields makes Heather a well-rounded character who finds both joy and regret in her suburban life.
The other calm adult is Madelyn’s husband Keenan. Henrí Franklin plays Keenan as cool, calm, and soft-spoken. He gently reassures his wife in a way to reassure himself. The couple is biracial, and Keenan has some well-founded concerns about going into an upscale white neighborhood.
Keenan is in a research center at the University of Michigan where he specializes in doing treatises on comedy. Franklin gives Keenan a dry, slowly building sense of humor and also gets to do a bit of physical comedy.
Big Jim, Heather’s husband, has no problem with Keenan’s race, he just doesn’t care for Go Blue. He’s a dyed-in-the-wool Ohio State University (OSU) fanatic. Alex Leydenfrost has a grand old time playing the loud, jovial, bombastic, NRA-devoted gun owner and quite charming fellow.
Big Jim is not an OSU graduate. He didn’t go to college, and instead became a successful retailer with several stores, allowing him to own a house in a suburb and a cottage on a lake. He embodies the right’s idea of making his own way in the world. Leydenfrost captures that pride perfectly.
The relationships seesaw from a growing friendship to a nasty confrontation between the two women to a shared climax.
The story is told with both humor, including some interesting costumes and body movement. The dance-like yoga movements that are a play on ritual are effective in showing the two women bonding.
Another scene between Shields and Franklin is also quite effective. The churchgoing Heather asks Franklin about his youth at a Black Christian church. He begins to sing a gospel song, and she joins in singing and dancing.
The other character in the show is Dr. Hopkin, the befuddled, clearly incompetent doctor at the fertility clinic. Kevin Theis is hilarious. His rigid facial expressions are priceless. His vain attempts to talk away the obvious is well played.
Human Error doesn’t offer a formula for erasing the dangerous divide that has ruptured common discourse in a nation that requires just that. But the idea of people putting aside their differences to reach out to each other and see the humor in themselves and their opposites is a worthy effort in the right direction.
Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.
Eric Pfeffinger’s "Human Error" runs at the Purple Rose Theatre Company, 137 Park St. in Chelsea, through March 18. For tickets and information, visit www.purplerosetheatre.org.