Sunday, March 18, 2018

ASF: "Bear Country"

When Michael Vigilant was writing Bear Country, he knew he had to get it right; after all, Coach Paul "Bear" Bryant is idolized in Alabama, and there are a lot of people who knew and worked with him and had versions of virtually any episode in Bryant's life that might make it to the stage. And he had to capture the character of the man beyond the football field.

Brought back for a third run in the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's intimate Octagon Theatre [seen previously in 2009 and 2011], Bear Country again features Rodney Clark in the role, with Matt Clevy as a Young Bryant and a Young Coach Bryant, and Seth Andrew Bridges, and Clinton C. Lowe playing all the other characters.

It opens as Coach Bryant is packing up his office on his retirement from the University of Alabama, looking around and picking up an assortment of footballs, photographs, magazine articles, and other items that trigger memories that become the backbone of Vigilant's narrative. -- There are mixed feelings, of course: fond ones as he remembers coach-mentors who gave him sound advice, football triumphs, humorous episodes galore; and unpleasant recalls of interrogations regarding alleged game-fixing and betting, accusations of racism, and the deaths of parents and athletes who meant the world to him.

Time here is not chronological -- memory is like that; and Peter Hicks' set has strategically placed furniture and props [desks, the famous viewing/coaching tower, a chalkboard showing the famous "wishbone formation", Coca-Cola and Golden Flake, etc.] that allow for fluid staging of these memories.

But it is Vigilant's script and the talented ensemble that give it vigor. Mr. Clevy, Mr. Bridges, and Mr. Lowe create vivid depictions of their assigned characters, stamping each of them with individual traits that credibly impact Coach Bryant.

At the center is Mr. Clark, who has played "the Bear" off and on for almost a decade. He appears so comfortable in Bryant's skin, that one imagines the man himself on the ASF stage. -- Throughout the play, Mr. Clark philosophizes with the confidence of a man who has lived a full life. His reflections on his mentors' significance, the many life lessons he inspired in his athletes, the value of family, the differentiation between "losing" and "loss", and the fact that "It doesn't cost anything to be nice, to be honest, and to be a man of your word", are things that any audience member can take to heart.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

ASF: "The Miracle Worker"

It would be a disservice to William Gibson's The Miracle Worker to focus exclusively on the relationship between young Irish immigrant Annie Sullivan [Marina Shay] and Helen Keller [Brooklyn Norstedt], and the effort that went into an eventual breakthrough moment for the blind-deaf-mute Helen. It is that, of course, but a lot  more besides.

Set in post-Civil War Tuscumbia, Alabama, Gibson's episodic storytelling has a lot to say about family, patriarchy, behavioral psychology, gender roles, race, social class, bullying, 19th Century medical practices, and disabilities that resonate across time and have audiences reflecting on their own experiences.

At the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, director James Bowen gives attention to each of these by placing the action on James Wolk's skeletal minimalist set; and his acting ensemble, dressed in Pamela Scofield's detailed period costumes, enhance the timeliness of these subjects through naturalistic rendering of relationships and dialogue.

From the outset, we learn of the disease that afflicted Helen in infancy, and then fast-forward eight years to a time when the family are resigned to catering to the young girl's tantrums, thereby enabling her to rule the roost. -- When Dr. Anagnos [Louis Butelli], the head of the "Perkins Institute for the Blind", sends the yet untested Annie to be Helen's teacher/governess, the stakes are high and expectations low. But Annie is no pushover, and with her own vision impairment, she uses unconventional tactics that challenge the patriarchy of Captain Keller [Timothy Carter], and the well-intentioned yet destructive enabling of Mrs. Keller [Jenny Strasburg] and Aunt Ev [Toni DiBuono]. -- The only family member who seems to approve of Annie's methods is Keller's son James [Sean Hudock], a youth who is trying desperately to speak up for himself and earn his father's respect. -- Household servant Viney [Ginneh Thomas] observes everything going on around her, and quietly demonstrates a dignity that needs no approval.

Gibson's 1959 script is based on Helen Keller's book The Story of My Life, and the 1962 film that followed it secured its popularity; several iconic scenes are indelibly marked in our collective consciousness: dining room sequences where Helen throws food and steals from others' plates; Annie teaching Helen sign-language words to associate with objects; and the climactic scene at the water pump that has Helen speak for the first time. -- Yet, there are a number of other instances that show the frustrations of the family and their relationships with one another as they deal with the impact of Helen's progress on them: Keller's reluctant capitulation to the wisdom of the women who want to give Annie a chance; James finding an unexpected ally and friend in Mrs. Keller; the powerful bonding between father and son. The actors give credible interpretations that target the most human responses to the challenges they face.

Through persistence and consistency, Annie teaches Helen discipline and earns the approval of the Kellers. The changes that Ms. Norstedt registers -- from the wild feral battles with Annie at the start to the thrill in understanding the meaning of words that will become her salvation -- are impressive; and Ms. Shay is unflinching in showing Annie's determination to do what is right regardless of objections to her methods. Her mantra of "discipline without breaking her spirit" and her determination to get authority for herself for fear that the family might undo Helen's progress ("She's testing you", she says when they return to placating Helen's outbursts by offering sweet-treats and affectionate hugs), center the action and have Annie emerge triumphant in Ms. Shay's capable interpretation of the role.

In the current season's plays, ASF is featuring "some of our native heroes whose triumphs and trials are woven into the fabric of Alabama's history": the Tuskegee Airmen, "Bear" Bryant, and Helen Keller. This iteration of The Miracle Worker is a fitting tribute.