Sunday, April 29, 2012

Red Door: "The Passing of Pearl"

What starts off slowly and tentatively in the Red Door Theatre's production of The Passing of Pearl picks up about half-way through Act I, tickling the audience's funny bone and touching their hearts with the title character's oft repeated dictum: "It's not who you are, it's who you can be."

Pearl's Spirit [Anne Brabham] haunts the small Memphis diner she ran for many years, and where she dispensed fried chicken & banana pudding to all customers whether they could pay or not, along with large helpings of good will to one and all.

Pearl has just died, it seems, and her snobbish & resentful daughter Charlene [Johanna Hubbard] arrives from out of town to assess "this dump" as she calls the diner, in order to build condos on the site and turn a profit.

As long-term loyal employees, African-American waitress Leateen [Juanita Smith in her first stage role] and Caucasian waitress Daphney [veteran Kim Graham], come to pack up the diner, their talk focuses on Pearl's impact on them and the community, with plenty of reminiscences both serious and humorous.

Their plea to keep the diner open in memory of the stalwart Pearl falls on Charlene's deaf ears, but what ensues is then fairly predictable: revelations about racial issues in the 1960s South, charity extended to those too proud to ask for it, trust in the Lord, assorted confessionals, surprises at the reading of Pearl's last will & testament, and an inevitable change of heart, all come in equal measure.

Though Ms. Brabham's smiles & frowns, and her very presence in almost every scene, indicate her judgement of other characters' actions, we learn most about her through Leateen and Daphney. Ms. Smith and Ms. Graham are never self-conscious in their roles, and demonstrate a fine rapport. They have their secrets too that are divulged in due course with a no-nonsense approach. But, for two persons who have worked side by side for over twenty years & who can finish one another's sentences, their dialogue has too many long pauses to be thoroughly convincing.

Ms. Hubbard makes Charlene pretty despicable, though this is tempered by her frustrated attempts to please her mother even after her death, and her final reclamation that allows Pearl's ghost to depart with satisfaction.

There are a lot of gentle lessons to be learned here about friendship and humane & compassionate -- and most of all fair -- behavior & treatment of others.

Artistic Director Fiona Macleod has a sure hand in guiding these actors around the finely detailed set -- one that is as comfortable, recognizable, and nostalgis as Vain Colby's script -- and it is more than fitting that she has been presented with the Red Door Theatre Excellence in Action Award "for exemplifying the spirit of the Red Door Theatre by fostering and encouraging its growth and promoting and enhancing its image." -- Truly, "It's not who you are, it's who you can be" means a lot both in The Passing of Pearl and at the Red Door Theatre.