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Queens Chronicle

When the meaningful is just meaningless

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Posted: Thursday, February 20, 2014 10:30 am

So often do extraordinary occurrences get touted as proof of a higher being. Choosing not to go to work on the day your train crashes or surviving a topple off a building are instances of surviving the unsurvivable.

“The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens” attempts to decipher the meaning of survival when the meaning of life isn’t so obvious.

The 2-hour production, written by Woodside resident Kara Bentley-Quinn, tells the story of Sybil Stevens, a woman of honest means living in Chicago who is the sole survivor of a horrific plane crash.

Naturally, the country is drawn to Sybil as the only thing that spared her life was the drink cart that barricaded her against the back of the plane. The media, her friends and family all gravitate to this woman who beat death, who, at least in their eyes, is proof that God exists and chose Sybil to live.

Unlike the majority of fame-hungry people on television, Sybil fully rejects the idea that she is special and wants nothing more than to return to a normal life with her nephew, Derek, and pray the Chicago Cubs finally win a World Series.

Bentley-Quinn does well in exploring the human condition and while Sybil is the center of the story, it is the idea that people are unwilling to accept that sometimes things just happen and that God may not have anything to do with it that acts as an almost invisible character on its own. It is forever present on stage, even during the lighthearted moments.

The clear standout is Jennifer Gordon Thomas as Sybil. Normally, the main character of a play is given meaty lines that even mediocre actors can sink their teeth into but Thomas’ strength is in her subtle delivery and complete comfort on stage that makes her so fantastic.

Yes, Sybil is a woman of simplicity but that doesn’t mean she’s any less interesting, something Thomas understands and embraces fully.

Yeaxlanda Kay plays talk show host Tessa MacKenzie, a second-rate Oprah-type with diabolical tendencies. Mackenzie is clearly after ratings and cares as little about Sybil’s story as the survivor herself.

Kay’s smile is cloying, which makes for a character who supplies a sufficient amount of comedic relief but whom everyone in the audience couldn’t stand.

Sean Williams as Joe, the EMT who saves Sybil and believes he is in love with her; Jordan Tierny as Derek, Sybil’s 20-year-old nephew; and Samantha Fairfield Walsh as Tessa’s researcher, Valerie, make for a decent supporting cast.

Bentley-Quinn could have fleshed out the three supporting characters a bit more and would have benefited from leaving the ending a bit more open-ended.

People’s dispositions do not change so easily, something the playwright brought across so well in Sybil’s character, yet Joe and Derek’s story line seems to tie together too neatly.

Those bumps aside, Bentley-Quinn is a promising playwright, addressing the meaning of life in a way that is still somewhat taboo.

Indifference is rarely portrayed in plays, movies and television. That is because indifference — in a majority of cases — is boring.

An audience wants to see a character who cares about something.

With Sybil, her indifference toward the accident isn’t necessarily an indifference toward God or life in general.

She still cares for people in her life but it is the conclusion she has come to that sometimes bad things happen for no reason at all that becomes a way for her to break free from the box the media and the public have tried to push her into.

As Derek says to Joe at the end of the second act:

“Yeah, she’s amazing, but she’s also just a person.”

‘The Unlikely Ascent of Sybil Stevens’
When: Feb 20 to 22, 8 p.m. Feb 23, 3 p.m.
Where: Queens Secret Theatre
44-02 23 St., LIC
Tickets: $15 online, $18 at door

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