Sunday, March 13, 2016

WOBT: "On Golden Pond"

Ernest Thompson's On Golden Pond, best known for its multi-award winning 1981 film starring Henry Fonda, Katherine Hepburn, Jane Fonda, and Dabney Coleman, is currently playing at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre.

Featuring a strong acting ensemble, the play takes us to a lake cottage in a remote corner of rural Maine, where Norman and Ethel Thayer [Roger Humber and Teri Sweeney] have spent the last forty-eight Summers. As is clear from the start, Norman and Ethel are devoted to one another, have grown to tolerate the eccentricities that developed over time, and recognize with varying degrees of acceptance that life for them is growing short, and the ease with which Mr. Humber and Ms. Sweeney inhabit their roles is a gently reassuring reminder that long-term marriages are not a thing of the past.

But all is not sweetness and light on Golden Pond. At eighty years of age, Norman's dementia and heart palpitations are a matter of concern [as is punctuated early on in his distracted conversations with Janie Allred's officious telephone Operator], and when semi-estranged daughter Chelsea [Lauren Morgan] arrives with her current beau Bill Ray [Douglas Mitchell] and his son Billy [Will Chieves] in tow, many of the family's skeletons come out of the closet. Additionally, local mailman Charlie [Joey B. Fine], a childhood sweetheart of Chelsea's who has never lost his feelings for her, is an occasional distraction and source of much of the play's humor.

There is a lot to accomplish in the production's almost two-and-a-half-hour running time to set things aright. -- Jason Morgan is growing more assured as a director: he crafts a clear story with his actors, but allows lengthy scene changes with a lot of dead time to slow the pace and let audiences disconnect. Plus, he rushes through a few key moments -- Chelsea's reconciliation with her deliberately cantankerous father is over in a flash, and curmudgeonly Norman's developing connection with the willful Billy [Mr. Chieves's attitude and posturing speaks a lot] over fishing and literature is often so quiet and restrained that it is hardly noticed.

The focus is most certainly on Norman and Ethel. Mr. Humber delves into Norman's purposefully difficult personality, a man slowly coming to terms with his growing dementia and heart condition while holding on to his position as head of household. His interrogation of Bill as an acceptable suitor for his daughter is one of his better scenes, and Mr. Mitchell [a most welcome newcomer to the local community theatre stage] gives a credible and truthful depiction of a man in love who must make nice with his prospective in-laws, and who relies on honesty to get him by. He is a good match for Norman's testiness.

Ms. Sweeney, one of the River Region's most accomplished actors, gives simply the most natural and believable characterizations in this production. She is a model of physical comfort and vocal honesty for her fellow actors, and her generosity in sharing the stage and supporting them makes everyone better. Her Ethel looks after Norman with an eagle eye and an understanding of his health and well-being, while her affectionate appelation of him as an "old poop" serves to lessen his fears. As a go-between for Chelsea and Bill and Billy, she unobtrusively is the strength of all the relationships. And her final scene with Mr. Humber as Ethel and Norman say good-bye to Golden Pond's loons is comforting to both them and us that simple things have value. (For tis final weekend, the role of Ethel will be played by Angie Mitchell; she's got big shoes to fill.)

Though not without its flaws, the WOBT production of On Golden Pond is a gentle confirmation of family and long-term relationships.

ASF: "White Lightning"

"Gentlemen, start your engines." Award-winning Gee's Bend playwright Elyzabeth Gregory Wilder's latest offering is having its World Premiere at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, strategically or coincidentally scheduled during this year's "Sprint Cup Series". Directed by Geoffrey Sherman, White Lightning -- a mixed-bag of a play combining "racing, moonshine, and revenuers" with a few doses of romance -- features Ms. Wilder's gift for naturalistic dialogue that captures the colloquial speech patterns that delineate her characters and skillfully evoke time and place: the time here being the late 1940s, and the place mostly in rural Georgia.

Whether the scope of her subject (a feel-good fictionalized account of the often anonymous participants of the rustic racing circuit and the beginnings of NASCAR) will have wide appeal is yet to be determined, but White Lightning's two-hour running time on ASF's Festival Stage provides some engaging performances and background to what has become one of America's most established and profitable institutions. How times have changed since then.

The plot centers on Avery McCallister [Matthew Goodrich in his ASF debut], an Army veteran fresh from World War II, whose less than perfect past is made up for by his eagerness to change and to pursue his version of the American Dream by becoming a champion race car driver. He ingratiates himself to Hank Taylor [Rodney Clark], the scheming owner of a local garage and purveyor of gum-ball machines that make him a "legit businessman", but whose profitable side-business is running bootleg moonshine using fast cars on the back roads of Georgia. In exchange for improvements on his $50 junkheap, Avery agrees to work for Hank, but predictably has second thoughts after meeting Dixie James [Becca Ballenger, also new to ASF], whose first appearance looking like Rosie the Riveter establishes her as a challenge to Avery to live up to his potential.

Larry Tobias returns to ASF after his memorable role as Ike  in Twentyseven a few seasons back, this time as Mutt, a former driver and ace mechanic who can work his magic on any car, and whose one-word humorous comments and seeming unconcern make him an intriguing character who leaves audiences wanting more. As the numerous short episodes accumulate, and with Mutt's unerring guidance, the on-stage car gradually becomes race-worthy as stage crew dressed in garage overalls add the assorted bits and pieces to it.

A smarmy revenuer named Chester Pike [Brik Berkes], has a long-term "arrangement" to turn a blind eye on Hank's business for their mutual profit; and it should come as no surprise when Mr. Berkes (who cleverly seems to always lead with his paunch) reneges on their "arrangement". For both men, profit is the driving force.

There aren't many surprises or revelations in store in White Lightning, and the uninitiated might need a few more details about NASCAR's history, but the acting ensemble are all solid in their characterizations. -- There is a sweetly youthful romantic discovery between Mr. Goodrich and Ms. Ballenger, and the inevitable face-off between Mr. Clark's conniving Hank and Mr. Goodrich's newly discovered decency as Avery has a palpable tension.

The pursuit of the American Dream, whether through education, business, or pick-yourself-up-by the bootstraps philosophy (as it is in White Lightning) shows that although a lot has changed since early days, America's persistent optimism never falters.