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The play on opposites in Jane Martin's Criminal Hearts begins even before the Planet Ant production gets underway. Faced with the challenge of making a mattress, towering pizza boxes, and myriad Dr. Pepper cans resemble an upscale Chicago apartment, set designer Dave Early fills the Spartan surroundings with details, from beautiful molding to accent lights that tastefully mark the space where a featured art piece used to be. The play quickly explains the circumstances behind disturbed, nearly agoraphobic Ata (Kate Peckham): her cheating husband took everything that wasn't nailed down, which is especially problematic because Bo (Sharon L. Brooks) has just come to rob the place.

Under Will Myers’s direction, this production has a streak of unevenness. For every perfectly timed laugh-out-loud retort (and there are several), there’s another choice that runs contrary to the text. Myers’s staging generally compensates well for a challenging L-shaped seating configuration, but leaves characters awkwardly stranded when the focus shifts. As endearing as Peckham is while neck-deep in desperation and squalor, it’s difficult to imagine her Ata even passing as a functional adult capable of basic hygiene, let alone the strong woman whose unconventional departure from the bourgeoisie the viewer is expected to celebrate.

This is Ata's story, first and foremost. Destitute, abandoned, pathetic Ata: she spends her days feeding her neuroses and sharpening pencils, chugging Dr. Pepper and alternately longing for and fearing the mammoth obstacle of venturing out her own door. When the aforementioned robbery goes awry, Bo sticks around first as a captive, then as a confidant and eventual tutor; with her help, the invigorated Ata devises a plan to reclaim something of herself. Peckham's performance is buoyant and often charming, but her continued maniacal overtones can't help but suggest that her character's developments aren't improvements at all, muddling the question of what exactly to cheer. Brooks is powerful, if elusive, as the questionably motivated Bo — her clear affinity for Ata is seasoned just the right amount by her occasional benign lie, her repeated insistence that no one is trustworthy, and the very nature of her profession.

Tonally, the production strives to have it all — sharp verbal sparring, plot-driven hijinks, and character-based growth. Yet all three are difficult to sustain simultaneously, leading to the occasional sense of setting one aside in favor of the other. Martin’s goofy story of crime and vengeance and her fun reveals are helped by the supporting cast of Rob Pantano’s gruff, matter-of-fact accomplice and Bryan Lark’s aggressive, manipulative snake of a husband. From biting one-liners to a hilariously over-the-top slapstick moment, the comedy spikes high, but then bottoms out. Indeed, the most consistent and satisfying element is the solid relationship forged between Bo and Ata: Brooks and Peckham are vibrant in their scenes together, growing their bond by believable degrees. They like each other against all odds and, despite multiple indicators to the contrary, this core relationship does feel rewarding.

Criminal Hearts isn't out to solve any problems or teach any lessons. The obvious villain is identified and punished, but the obvious protagonist and her newfound partner in crime have a harder time with a shaky denouement, and the ambivalent conclusion gets strange commentary by sound designer Myers's last in a string of mid-90s time-capsule anthems. The production is funny at times, at others inscrutable; in all, the show is so mired in contrasts — have and have not, sane and crazy, power and helplessness – that it even struggles with itself.


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