Sunday, August 29, 2010

WOBT: "The Letter Box"

The Way Off Broadway Theatre in Prattville is currently showcasing a debut performance of The Letter Box, a "dramedy" by Tina G. Fonte and Lisa Martin. It is WOBT's 24th production since 2003.

Designed to refer to businesses and individuals in any community where it is performed, the script engages local audiences who recognize them; even J.T. and Leeann's voices are heard on the radio in this show.

Directed by Ms. Martin, who also has an on-stage role, and designed by Ms. Fonte, the plot of The Letter Box centers on Elmo Finkelstein [Matthew Givens], a Jewish holocaust survivor living in Prattville, Alabama, and known to everyone both as a hypochondriac and a "local character" whose eccentricities endear him to some and test the patience of others.

Elmo has been searching for his long-lost son, and makes contact by writing letters to the distant Knott family children; and he keeps a box of letters with him at all times, letters that are discovered later to contain links to his past.

When Elmo is hospitalized and in a coma after a hit-and-run incident, the locals come to his rescue by reading his letters and attempt to re-unite him with his family.

Act I provides a long exposition that introduces an assortment of characters who intersect Elmo's life: hospital Nurse Nellie [Teri Sweeney], business-like Dr. Kenton [Whitney Lehmann], Bus Driver Bill and Poppy Jenkins [both roles played by West Marcus], polite & stuffy Englishwoman Velma Dinsmoor [Misty Corrales], brash & outspoken Haddie Gipson [Michon Givens], and flirtatious socialite Widow Hildebrand [Ms. Martin]. -- The dysfunctional Knott family are played by David Felber, Dana Morrison as his upward-moving politician wife who sacrifices family for career, and Rachel Brackins & Hannah Germann as their two daughters.

The two families come together in Act II when Thea Knott travels to Prattville to confront the stranger who has been writing to her daughters, only to find him hospitalized, and where she learns to be more tolerant of others and to value her own family.

The script has a lot going for it -- some clever dialogue and important themes -- though some judicious editing and a firmer directorial hand could tighten the 2-hour and 20-minute performance. Played as it is on a small stage, some of the numerous locations require lengthy scene changes, thus slowing down the plot movement and disengaging audiences from its themes and situations. And the sets use a curious mixture of pictorial detail and clumsy unfinished renderings.

Most of the performances, saddled as they are with stereotypes and sentimentality, are convincingly credible. Chief among them is Teri Sweeney's completely natural sound and behavior that are committed to each moment, providing an excellent model for the rest of the company.

The believable adolescent whining and bluntness of the Knott sisters is fine; the well-defined gestures and comic vocal inflections of Ms. Givens make her character both truthful and funny; and Mr. Marcus' distinctions between the pathetic illness of Poppy and the in-your-face tauntings of Bus Driver Bill are insightful and convincing.

The range that Mr. Givens' interpretation of Elmo provides is character driven, making audiences laugh or cry as dictated by the script, and though his dialect could be more nuanced, he does make us care about his plight and the plot's resolution.