Friday, February 5, 2010

Wetumpka Depot: "Second Samuel"

A full house and a well-earned standing ovation greeted the Wetumpka Depot Players at the curtain call of "Second Samuel", the inaugural production of this, their 30th Anniversary Season.

Atlanta playwright Pamela Parker's well-crafted and Pulitzer nominated play is set in the fictitious small town of Second Samuel, Georgia in 1949, where everyone knows everyone else's business, or so it seems. -- The recent death of the town's matriarch, Miss Gertrude, impacts the lives of the citizens and reveals their assorted eccentricities, relationships, and secrets...often in the most outrageously comical ways.

The stage is divided into four acting areas: the Change Your Life Hair and Beauty Shop, reminiscent of "Steel Magnolias" where the town's women gossip, is balanced by the Bait & Brew "social club" as the men's counterpart; in the center is Miss Gertrude's porch, and in front of it is a tree stump where much of the narration takes place.

Parker's tightly-woven plot -- and director Tom Salter's attention to its details and rhythms -- bring an honesty of perspective to its themes of tolerance of race, gender, personalities, disabilities, or virtually anyone who is "different." The script's balance of humor and pathos, certainty and doubt, accusation and forgiveness keep our attention throughout. -- And the multi-talented ensemble of novice and experienced actors find nuances that elevate their characters from stereotypes to complex individuals.

Miss Gertrude had touched so many lives that virtually everyone wants to contribute to the party at her house after the funeral: the beauty shop owner, Omaha Nebraska [Kristy Meanor], volunteers to do Miss Gertrude's hair for her burial, and many others are willing to pitch in. But when she reveals a secret, their hidden prejudices emerge. What first seemed fairly benign, provokes arguements and conflicts stemming from the observation that everyone has peculiarities they don't want to be made public. -- And it is up to someone to calm things down.

That someone is the narrator & central character, a young man named B-Flat who, despite his mental disability and often strange behavior, has more sense than all the rest of the characters put together. He is one of the town's "outsiders"; the other is his best friend, a black man named "U. S." [Bobby Mays], who tends bar in the Bait & Brew.-- Miss Gertrude had looked after B-Flat from his childhood, and he is devoted to her as much after her death as during her life.

In an extraordinarily detailed portrayal by Jonathan Conner -- faltering speech, facial tics, palsied fingers, nervous gestures, perceptive commentary, honesty and clarity of thought, and an uncanny ability to switch attitude in mid-sentence -- B-Flat's strangeness appears so natural and the characterization so complete, that audiences relate to his predicament without any reluctance. Our sympathy for B-Flat's disability disappears, and is replaced by affectionate understanding and acceptance of one another's differences.

Director Salter allows his actors time to explore the subtleties of character, and allows the themes to emerge slowly and without fuss or heavy handed preaching. Whether by unison speech, comic timing, spurts of anger, sensitive conversations, solo or group harmony songs, or physical arrangement of characters, his production is a clear celebration of how best to find acceptance in the community and in ourselves.