Monday, September 29, 2014

Wetumpka Depot: "A Higher Place in Heaven"

Georgia playwright Pamela Parker has a small cottage industry surrounding the fictional town of Second Samuel, GA -- Second Samuel, A Very Second Samuel Christmas, and now showing on the Wetumpka Depot stage: a prequel to the other two called A Higher Place in Heaven, showing the boyhood of characters Frisky and U.S., who feature prominently as adults in the other two plays.

Set in the Summer of 1925, it is a gentle coming-of-age story as well as a serious contemplation on race relations told through complex family relationships. Blacks and Whites who grew up together for generations have fixed social "places" that no one seems to question -- they appear to get along, and it is these assumptions that have kept Blacks back with little hope for advancement and allowed Whites to feel superior.

Teenagers: Frisky [Reese Lynch] and Ulysses (known as U.S.) [Matthew Mitchell] are best friends who spend their time fishing or otherwise lazing about, while their Mothers: Miss Madison [Hazel Jones] and her confidante-servant Miss Simpson [Anne-Marie Mitchell] gossip on the porch of "New Hope", the Madison family's old plantation mansion. Their two families have lived there for generations, and Miss Simpson helped bring up the Madison children.

Everything seems normal until Frisky's older lawyer brother, Son [Clint Evans], shows up to give a speech at the dedication of a monument to their grandfather who fought in the Civil War; Son wants to emphasize the "glory" of the war, and his wife Billie Augusta [Madyson Greenwood] tempers his enthusiasm with practical comments.

When Son discovers his Mother's new will which leaves the family home to Miss Simpson, he is outraged that the property will belong to a Black family at Miss Madison's death, and does everything he can to thwart her plan.

The boys -- inseparable playmates on the verge of growing up, and wanting to make something of themselves -- have some plans of their own to both attend Tuskegee Institute (since U.S. can't attend a White university); and when each is faced with decisions, their inner biases come to the fore, and the racial divide and all the assumptions that come along with it demonstrate how complicated an issue it is.

Confronted with Son's question: "Why does the will leave the house to Miss Simpson?", Miss Madison's clear response is that "It's the right thing to do." And her family aren't to be left out; they'll all be taken care of.

Director Kim Mason's excellent ensemble cast respect the script's comfortable style, imbuing their characters so naturally that they are completely credible. There is hardly a false note from any of them. (Though Son's capitulation happens a bit too quickly, by that time we are so ensconced in all their lives, that it hardly matters.)

The example of grandfather is the crux of the matter: he treated everyone the same, without regard to race or age or gender or wealth. -- As Billie Augusta says at one point: while good deeds alone will get people into heaven, "...people who take care of our ugly business just because it needs to be done, because its the right thing to do, they're going to get a higher place in heaven." -- And that is what Miss Madison is about, though it takes a long while for her secret motives to be explained.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

WOBT: "Bargains"

Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre is currently performing a 1992 comedy -- Bargains, by Jack Heifner -- that showcases the talents of local actors and is directed by Tina Abate. Best known for his 1976 play Vanities, and also the author of WOBT's 2012 production of Patio/Porch, Heifner gives audiences some clever dialogue and familiar situations, though here its predictable plot, just out-of-date cultural references, and indirect treatment of the topic of homosexuality, make it appear old fashioned. Nonetheless, some strong characterizations enliven Bargains' two acts.

Set somewhere in rural Texas, Bargains opens in a struggling bargain-basement department store on one of its several sidewalk sale days. Three sales clerks bemoan their condition and the store's depleted and out-of-style stock, but receive little sympathy from manager Michael Mead [Adam Hunt], whose brusque and authoritarian manner do little to endear him. -- Each clerk has her issues: Tish [Curtia Torbert] is due to give birth any day and has an out of work husband who may or may not be cheating on her; spinster Sally [Zyna Captain] still lives at home and caters to every whim of her elderly and demanding mother; outspoken and perennially late for work Mildred [Hollie Pursifull] shares a trailer with her gay brother Lothar [Adam Hunt again -- this character appears only in Act II], a color-blind hairdresser who has failed at every career attempt, and whose boyfriend Dennis [Kehinde Batife] is a florist who is allergic to flowers. -- A lot of contrivances that appear forced, and with the sole intent of garnering a few laughs.

Much of their private lives and secret vices are revealed as the store is about to be closed, putting the women out of work with the departure of Mr. Mead. -- Tish goes off to try to save her marriage, and does not appear in Act II; a shame that audiences are not given the pleasure of Ms. Torbert's talents, as she gives the most solid and truthful characterization in this production.

So, Act II picks up a month later outside Mildred's trailer, where Lothar has barricaded himself in after his sister has gone to another hair salon and not to him. -- It is here where Mildred and Sally comfort one another, challenge one another, and become close (if not very credible) allies as plot contrivances mount up to enable a convenient happy ending.

An overlong game of charades, and slow pacing throughout the two acts bring Bargains in at about two hours and twenty minutes. But there are moments that bring giggles and belly laughs. Ms. Pursifull particularly brings conviction to her character's droll pronouncements and sly looks, and has a fine sense of comic timing. And Ms. Captain gets well earned sympathy through honest depictions of her role.

WOBT continues to develop new talents, mixing them with veteran actors whose skills will hopefully rub off.