Monday, October 11, 2010

Faulkner: "All My Sons"

Arthur Miller's Tony Award winning 1947 play "All My Sons" is currently playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, reminding us that concerns of family and business in war time are as resonant today as they were when the play was written.

Directed by Jason Clark South, this production features some of Faulkner's veteran actors whose acting abilities are challenged by Miller's naturalistic treatment; and they are mostly up to the task.

Joe and Kate Keller [Chris Kelly and Kari Gatlin] have been keeping mum for some years about Joe's responsibility of manufacturing faulty airplane parts that were installed and caused the deaths of numerous pilots during World War II. Joe had also let his partner suffer the consequences of a long jail sentence, while he returned to work and made a very successful business for himself and his family. -- The townspeople have been suspicious of Joe ever since he got out of jail.

Their son Larry was "lost" on a flight mission, and Kate is resolute in believing that he is still alive, while others know that he is dead.

Younger son Chris [Chase McMichen] also served in the war, returning home safely, and idolizing his father; he invites former neighbor and Larry's sweetheart Ann Deever [Jaynie Casserly] to their home in hopes of igniting a romance between them, a sensitive issue, since Kate insists that she is "Larry's girl"...and it becomes difficult for the young people to break their news to Joe & Kate.

When Ann's brother George [Tony Davidson] arrives after visiting his father in jail, he knows that Joe had allowed his father to rot in jail, and will do most anything to announce it to the world and rescue Ann from the corruption of the Keller family.

Neighbors Dr. Jim & Sue Bayliss [Michael Morrow & Abby Roberts] have moved into the Deever's house next door to the Kellers, and neighbors Frank & Lydia Lubey [Daniel Fausz & Hailey Beene] who have known the Kellers all their lives, serve as reminders of the past, and Frank writes a horoscope for Larry, insisting that he is not dead and thereby giving hope to Kate, while Lydia -- pregnant with her fourth child -- is an ideal wife & mother.

Young Bert [Trish Wampol] is a protege of Joe's in serving as a policeman for the community -- upholding the strongest moral principles instilled in him by ironic comment on Joe's secrecy.

As secrets are revealed, and the truth about Larry's demise becomes clear, Joe is left in a desperate condition: he has lost the love and trust of his remaining son; and Kate's belief that Larry is alive is shattered.

There are some fine moments of impassioned conflict between father and son, and of budding romance & trust between Ann and Chris, but much of the dialogue -- and therefore our understanding of the themes and conflicts -- is inaudible. There are two reasons for this which can be fixed: first, naturalistic dialogue still needs to be projected, and many of the actors in this production speak so softly that they can not be heard; second, the set has a wide expanse of white stones filling the back-yard of the Keller's house that make loud gravelling sounds with every step on them by an actor, and while the set-design looks good, when dialogue is covered, it must be changed...especially since much of the acting is good and ought to be heard.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Wetumpka Depot: "The Dixie Swim Club"

Take five Southern women who were members of their college's swim team; meet them some 22 years after graduation at an annual reunion at a beach cottage in North Carolina; watch their relationships shift and grow over the next 33 years -- and you have "The Dixie Swim Club" on stage as part of the Wetumpka Depot Players' 30th Anniversary Season.

The script by Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope, and Jasmine Hooten gives each character a distinct and familiar personality that matures with them over the years and gives each of the cast members plenty of opportunities to develop nuances that make them more than mere caricatures.

That's not to say that they lose these traits: Sheree [Terri Thompson], a fitness & health-food addict, is always the group's organizer; often-married Lexie [Kim Mason] never ceases to stay glamorous and flirt with men; Dinah [Ashley Moon] employs her career drive in the law to everyone's benefit; Jeri Neal [Bridgette Harper], a former nun, remains optimistic throughout; and Vernadette's [Jan Hancock] annual broken-bone and tales of a dysfunctional family life keep the others entertained. In fact, all of them provide entertaining diversions for the rest and for us.

Other than the yearly ritual reunion, there is little plot in this play; instead, these women's enduring friendship is what holds interest. In essence, they are all good people -- somewhat flawed -- who are instantly recognizable in their ordinariness, making it easy for us to identify with their individual quirks and off-stage lives. They divulge a lot about families and events that have happened during the year, though they swear that their weekend get-togethers are for them alone, away from other friends, family, social obligations, jobs...a time and place to enjoy one another's company.

Though their histories come alive, and they occasionally wax nostalgic in revisiting the past, these women live in the present. They argue a lot and vie for attention, but realize that the fights are not as important as the bonds of friendship.

As they face so many common issues -- marriages and divorces, health, age, alcoholism, career choices, the economy, birth & death, and hurricanes -- all with a sense of humor, we watch their friendships grow and solidify as they continually discuss and share new aspects of their lives and characters.

We learn that Lexie "may be vain and frivolous, but not shallow", and that Dinah did a lot more for all of them that no one ever knew, that Vernadette's life "is one big country song" and that Jeri Neal's grandmother's homespun advice settles many arguements, and that Sheree's hors d'oeuvres that taste like "regurgitated ferret-food" create bonds of affection.

"The Dixie Swim Club" gives a fine example of ensemble acting under Hazel Jones's intuitively sensitive direction. We enjoy their company and may learn much from them.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

AUM: "The Misanthrope"

Theatre AUM's current season-opening production under Mike Winkelman's direction locates 17th Century French playwright Moliere's darkly funny "The Misanthrope" in 19th Century New Orleans during Mardi Gras, a choice that somehow works through the antic behavior of its actors, while it de-emphasizes the serious side of the play.

Moliere's concern among others was to criticize the attitudes and behavior of his contemporaries -- when fashion and glamorous appearance passed for substance, when flattery trumped honesty, and when one's reputation could be elevated or ruined by gossip...Sound familiar?! Here we are in a narcissistic celebrity-obsessed culture where more people recognize Paris Hilton than Elena Kagan, where frivolous lawsuits are brought and achieve an ill-gotten 15-minutes of fame, and where vulgar self-absorbed behavior dominates much of prime time and cyber bullying has driven some people to suicide.

Val Winkelman again triumphs in creating inventive and elegant costumes that depict the period and enhance characterizations; turning her hand to scenic design for the first time, she creates a minimalist setting comprising marble trompe-l'oeil columns, gold drapes, and glittering chandeliers -- and a set of "dancing chairs" -- that define the space and support the fluidly choreographed movement of the actors.

Alceste [Michael Krek] loves the beautiful Celimene [Laura Selmon], yet is facing a dilemma: he demands forthright honesty in everything, and she is a coquette who evades decisions and flatters others with apparent sincerity while slandering them behind their backs. But Alceste can not help himself, he is so much in love.

Alceste's friend Philinte [Josh Diboll] recommends more prudent speech, but when the foppish Oronte [LaBrandon Tyre] demands an honest assessment of an awful sonnet he penned -- and Alceste reluctantly complies -- the absurd result is a lawsuit against the honest man.

Most of the characters spend a great deal of time and effort to disguise their true selves in the name of fashion and politeness, and Alceste's tolerance is tested at every turn, much to the delight of the audience.

Philinte says he agrees that honesty is admirable, but he flatters with the best of them to avoid conflict. Arsinoe's [Brittany Carden] expression of high moral standards belies her amorous duplicity and implied critical judgements. Oronte's excessive response to Alceste's honesty pits them as rivals for Celimene's affection. Acaste [Mickey Lonsdale] and Clitandre [Wes Milton] are such fawning fops that Alceste can barely stand to be in the same room with them. Celimene's every action is a disguise so habitual that it is impossible for her to break. Ms. Selmon's archness, posturing, and false frozen smile reminiscent of beauty pageant contestants, make her appear brittle and unattractive -- but Alceste can not deny his affection for her, as unreasonable as it is.

Only Eliante [Alicia Fry] is down-to-earth and, in a way, a deserving match for Alceste's honesty.

The director has his ensemble push the envelope in both action and speech, employing broad gestures and mincing gates, melodramatic poses, and frenetic pacing along with rapid speech, all of which prompt earned laughs and applause throughout.

Using Richard Wilbur's masterful rhymed couplet verse translation, recognized by many scholars as the best available in English, the AUM actors are challenged to speak the words intelligibly, articulately, and meaningfully -- and they do a good job, some more successfully than others. Mr. Krek is chief among them, with Mr. Diboll running a close second; however, the choice of high-pitched voices for most of the women and of the fops Acaste and Clitandre often render the words almost unintelligible when coupled with raucous laughs and physical hi-jinks -- all suitable to the characters, no doubt, and drawing responsive appreciation from the audience which also covers up many of the words. -- Perhaps some calming down after opening night will temper the performances so their energy and committment get the reactions they deserve.

By the end of the play, we are exhausted from laughter, and have been connected to the lives of these characters. Alceste's ultimatum to Celimene -- give up the fashionable life and go away with him to a distant, calmer, and honest place away from the noisy delights of the city -- is an impossible demand; and we are left to decide whether it is for the best.

ASF: "The Nacirema Society..."

The world premier of Atlanta based playwright Pearl Cleage's "The Nacirema Society Requests the Honor of your Presence at a Celebration of their First One Hundred Years" is taking the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's main stage by storm, garnering well-earned laughs and spontaneous standing ovations in a limited run before moving to its co-producing company, the Alliance Theatre in Atlanta.

And what a perfect way to begin ASF's "25th Anniversary Season" -- in Montgomery, that is, after its move from Anniston.

Set in Montgomery in 1964 at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Ms. Cleage's insightful comedy surprises with its many complications of plot and character, and its sensitive depiction of family relationships & secrets, exposing a side of the African-American culture of the period that is generally ignored by the history books: a side that needs to be told. -- Not everyone, after all, was as obsessed with the Movement as some chronicles suggest; though Civil Rights could not be ignored and is not ignored in Ms. Cleage's play, people continued to go to school, worked, and socialized. Life went on.

Depicted in "Nacirema..." are the affluent African-American Montgomerians whose social stature is securely unquestioned within their own ranks, but whose assurance translates to perceived arrogance and exclusivity by less fortunate Blacks.

Preparing for the Nacirema Society's debutante cotillion, young & romantic Gracie Dunbar [Naima Carter Russell] is subjected to her implacable widowed grandmother's constant reminders of the propriety expected of her as a representative of the group. In the person of Trezana Beverley, grandmother Grace Dubose Dunbar is a force to be reckoned with, the doyenne of the Nacirema who reveres and upholds its traditions, and whose word is law. She has all the marks of worldly success: family money and social position, an opulent mansion, servants, fine clothing, impeccable manners & precise speech, and a social set who rarely if ever emerge from their insular world.

Gracie's life has been planned for her, from following family traditions by attending Fisk University to marrying Bobby Green [Kevin Alan Daniels], the son of Grace's best friend, Catherine Adams Green [Andrea Frye]. But Gracie is a talented and serious writer who has been accepted at Barnard College in New York, and though she has grown up with Bobby, for her he is merely a friend; and while her mother Marie Dunbar [Chinai J. Hardy] is sympathetic, she is caught in the middle.

And there are other complications, first in the person of Alpha Campbell Jackson [Tonia Jackson], the daughter of a former maid in the Dunbar household who invents a scheme to extort money from the Dunbars to pay for her own daughter Lillie's [Karan Kendrick] education by threatening to reveal a family secret, and whose presence in the Dunbar's house pits divergent social classes against one another.

Secondly, the arrival of New York Times journalist Janet Logan [Jasmine Guy] has been planned to promote a positive image of the Nacirema, and to "correct" a "false" image published about them in a previous article. Well-intentioned though she may be, and though everyone treats her with excessive politeness, Janet's search for concrete details she can report are thwarted by Grace's and Catherine's obsessive attention to the upcoming cotillion, and their protection of the family's reputation.

Played out on Peter Hicks's staggeringly lavish and spacious set, and complimented by Susan Mickey's fabulous period-detailed costumes that enhance every character, "Nacirema" engages audiences for its full two and a half hours. Director Susan Booth guides her ensemble cast through the assorted plot contrivances and complications with apparent ease, making each moment believable by respecting Ms. Cleage's brilliant dialogue and intricate plotting of events. So many details of each character's lives and personalities are contained in the script, that each emerges as a complete and recognizable individual. Even the maid Jessie Roberts [Neda Spears], a role of opening doors, taking and giving back coats, and carrying props, is a fully developed person who intuits every move of other characters, and whose devotion to the family's honor is slyly manouvered at the end.

The laughs come a mile a minute in "Nacirema", mostly due to Ms. Cleage's character driven lines and the ensemble actors' timing and credibility, though occasional over-the-top interpretations and melodramatic gestures threaten to de-rail the text.

These are people we know, and their concern for doing what is right and good in spite of obstacles is worth celebrating. The love of family and the ability to forgive the sins of the past are lessons from which we can all benefit...So, welcome back to writing for the stage, Pearl Cleage! You have made us laugh, you have made us think, you have made us feel.