Metro Weekly

Arena’s The Shoplifters (Theatre Review)

The Shoplifters gives a woman of a certain age the kind of riveting gravitas almost always written for men

The Shoplifters
The Shoplifters | Photo: Arena Stage

Morris Panych‘s The Shoplifters () brings his big issues into the stockroom of a supermarket where the late-middle-aged Alma and the young, unanchored Phyllis have been accused of shoplifting. Accused but not quite caught in the act, it’s anything but an open and shut case, and, as she is questioned by the young and eager security guard Dom, Alma begins to challenge not just the evidence but his every assumption. When Dom’s boss Otto enters the fray and then privately reveals his own less-than-orthodox ideals, the dynamic enlivens even more.

Panych is interested in questions of who gets to decide a moral code and how much of it must we own. And like Woolly Mammoth’s Marie Antioinette, the questions are posed with humor and wit. Though there is a sitcom quality in the pacing and Alma’s rather too-wholesome ulterior motives, there is also an unmistakable authenticity.

And Shoplifters does something even more remarkable: it gives a woman of a certain age the kind of riveting gravitas that is almost always written for men. Alma is funnier and smarter than anyone in the room and grimly determined to defend the no-nonsense moral code she has carved from the mess that is life. How rare is that?

Utterly compelling, Jayne Houdyshell delivers her Alma with such completeness and ironic authority, it is impossible to imagine anyone else in the role. And although Panych’s goals here may ultimately be somewhat humble and even a little preachy, Houdyshell’s Alma is so enthralling and engaging they transcend any limits of the piece.

As Otto, world-weary and under-appreciated, Delany Williams is credible and in tune with Panych’s mood, if not quite all of his verbal rhythms. As Dom, the young guard eager for responsibility and a higher power, Adi Stein is pitch perfect and looks ready for something quicker and edgier. Rounding out the quartet as Phyllis, Jenna Sokolowski brings plenty of external, if not quite enough internal, energy to her unsettled woman.

The Shoplifters runs through Oct. 19 at Arena Stage, 1101 6th St. SW. Call 202-488-3300 or visit

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