Friday, April 29, 2022

Cloverdale Playhouse: "A Lesson Before Dying"

After a well-earned standing ovation at the sold-out opening night performance of A Lesson Before Dying at the Cloverdale Playhouse, many members of the audience sat down again in respectful silence to reflect on the blisteringly powerful production they had just witnessed.

The Alabama Shakespeare Festival commissioned playwright Romulus Linney to adapt Ernest J. Gaines' award winning novel in 2000, and the play has gone on to numerous productions, winning several more awards along the way. -- It recounts the story of a quasi-literate Black man sentenced to death in rural Louisiana in1948 for a crime he did not commit, and his Godmother's attempt to get him to face the electric chair with dignity.

Played on J. Scott Grinstead's exquisitely designed set [another triumph], with period character driven costumes by Cameron Wasner, BTW Magnet high school student Noah Henninger's evocative period appropriate sound design, and inspired lighting by BTW students Eboni McCoy and Princess McDaniel and their instructor Rita Tidwell, the collaborative effort seamlessly integrates with the script.

Director Georgette Norman guides her uniformly eloquent ensemble of seven actors through the complexities of plot and character with such naturalistic force that we never doubt that these could be real people. Tension builds through the play's two acts as they transmit their beliefs and doubts, their frustrations and faith, their acceptance and rejection of racial stereotypes, their trust and questioning of an inequitable legal system in the Jim Crow South; and Ms. Norman's directorial wizardry fixes our attention, requires our emotional participation, and challenges all of us in the audience to admit that the same demons impacting the characters on stage still resonate with us today.

Yes, there are lessons to be learned, though there are no easy answers. There's a lot still to do.

Jefferson [Chason Marvin is mesmerizing in his transformation] appears in chains for almost the entire play; he is shackled during his term in jail, and shackled by society's and the law's insistence that he is less than fact, his own defense lawyer had referred to him in court as a "hog", an appellation that Jefferson recognizes as an insult but insists if "that's what they say I am, that's what I'll be". -- His elderly Godmother Emma Glenn [a sympathetically steadfast Chrystal Bates] trusts that his former teacher Grant Wiggins [Gregory L. Blanche's inner conflict is palpable] is the only person who can get through to him: "You're a teacher...teach him to die like a man", she insists. But Grant, who questions his abilities as a teacher, has doubts that he can be effective. And when Reverend Moses Ambrose [an unswerving Joseph Trimble] challenges them all to try to guide Jefferson to save his soul by trusting God, both Jefferson and Grant are made to face their own atheism.

When Grant admits to his girlfriend Vivian Baptiste [Tunisia Thomas in a distinctively subtle characterization] that he does not want to go back to help Jefferson, and that he wants to get far away from the town, she tells him that he needs to "stand up like a man too", to help a man he knows is innocent. Risking their relationship, she even calls Grant a coward, and decides that she must do something herself to help Jefferson.

While Sheriff Sam Guidry [a matter-of-fact Chris Roquemore] insists on the letter of the law in the treatment of his prisoner, jailer Paul Bonin [a sensitive John McWilliams in a pivotal role] becomes more sympathetic as he witnesses the various interviews and visits from the others. And even the Sheriff relaxes the rules a bit.

As the action draws to its inevitable conclusion, signaled by the date and time of the execution getting nearer and nearer, there are several breakthrough moments for each of the characters. Central to this is the introduction of a notebook in which Jefferson is encouraged by Grant to "write what you feel deep inside you", to which Jefferson responds: "You make me think I'm somebody", and his transformation is complete. -- Though we do not witness the actual execution, the gut-wrenching denouement hinges on what it means to be heroic, where teachers are taught by their students what it means to be a dignified man.

This provocative production of A Lesson Before Dying demonstrates the very highest achievements in River Region theatre.

Wednesday, April 27, 2022

Pike Road Theatre Company: "Oliver!"

The River Region welcomed its newest community theatre last weekend: the Pike Road Theatre Company opened with director James Keith Posey's ambitions production of the popular Lionel Bart musical Oliver! in the Pike Road Intermediate School auditorium. -- And there's a lot more to come in its inaugural season.

The 45-member acting ensemble [35 of them from Pike Road] performed in front of an enthusiastically supportive audience comprising families and several local dignitaries. -- This support, as well as participation and encouragement from across the River Region, is essential in developing this fledgling organization who are currently on a shoestring budget and operating without much of the requisite theatrical equipment. -- But this has not deterred them in the least from offering a lively and polished production that is full of energy and talent.

Based on the Charles Dickens classic 1837 novel Oliver Twist that contains some of English Literature's most enduring characters, Bart's score contains many of musical theatre's memorable songs that develop plot and character relationships while providing opportunities for actors to showcase their singing and dancing skills.

In Oliver!, we are introduced to young Oliver Twist in an orphanage, and follow his many escapades over two acts where scheming adults and clever children teach him how to survive in the larger Victorian London world of duplicitous grown-ups, rascal street-gangs, petty thieves, hardened criminals, and occasional sympathetic benefactors who ultimately discover his parentage and restore him to a loving family.

In the title role, Griffin Isbell immediately steals our collective hearts with a plaintive "Please, sir, I want some more" -- gruel, that is -- after the orphan chorus got the action going with a dynamic rendition of "Food, glorious food"; and is confronted by Sam Wallace's bravura depiction of Mr. Bumble and his flirtation with the Widow Corney [Mara Woddall], his partner in crime, who sell Oliver off for a profit ["Boy for sale"]. -- The Sowerberrys [Kevin Mohajerin and Savannah Bowden -- both in good voice in "That's your funeral" and with slick characterizations] are the nefarious purchasers of the boy, and set him to work at their funeral parlor to garner sympathy from the mourners.

Unhappy with his new position, Oliver sings "Where is Love" bemoaning the loss of his Mother in his solitude and mistreatment; so when he is taunted about his dead mother and placed in a coffin as punishment, the boy manages to escape and winds up on the street where he is befriended by the Artful Dodger [Zaylon Johnson: a major talent to watch out for in future]. -- Dodger brings Oliver to Fagin's den of street urchins, where he is immediately welcomed to the gang ["Consider Yourself"], and schooled in the art of pickpocketing handkerchiefs ["Got to pick a pocket or two"] by Fagin [Matthew Givens bridges between comic and sinister with ease; and whether he changes his ways at the end is inconclusive].

Most of this has been played for well-earned laughs in Bart's sanitized version of Dickens' grim satirical depiction of London's criminal underworld and mistreatment of orphaned children, but when Bill Sikes [Gage Leifried] shows up, things take a darker turn. Mr. Leifried strikes a threatening figure when he demands payment from Fagin for items he has stolen, and his demeanor colors much of the upcoming action, especially his violent domineering relationship with Nancy [Kaylee Baker in fine voice], a woman of the streets who has a soft spot for Oliver ["I'd do anything"].

When Oliver is captured on a pickpocketing escapade, Act II is mostly about finding the boy, but the Nancy/Sikes relationship gets a significant amount of attention; when Sikes hits Nancy and she defends him in "As long as he needs me", we see how abused women often defend their abusers in hopes that their love will make things better. Unfortunately, Nancy pays with her life when she tries to protect Oliver by standing up to Sikes.

Mr. Brownlow [Eric Arvidson] takes the injured Oliver into his home where a series of incidents shared by Dr. Grimwig [Jason Morgan], Mrs. Bedwin [Connie Carraway] and Old Sally [Elana Woodall] discover to them that Oliver is Brownlow's grandson...and all ends well.

The two-and-a-half-hours with the Pike Road Theatre Company is time well-spent. Songs resonate long after exiting the theatre, memorable characters have come to life and garner respect for the acting company, Raquel Whitehead's lively choreography keeps moments well in hand with full commitment from the ensemble, costumes [Emily Blossom] provide a clear delineation of time and character, and the whole of Mr. Posey's fine production of Oliver! shows promise of even better things to come.

Saturday, April 16, 2022

WOBT-Prattville: "Proof"

David Auburn's Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play Proof  [2000] is finishing its run at Prattville's Way Off Broadway Theatre this weekend. 

Arguably the most polished production at WOBT in a long time, with first-time director Sandra Hataway guiding a stellar four-member ensemble of actors through the complications of its plot, the naturalism and credibility of each of the performances from start to finish warrants praise.

Catherine [Alex Rikard] has dropped out of college and sacrificed a promising career in mathematics to care for her math-genius father Robert [Jason Bush], who is seen in flashbacks and in Catherine's imagination, and whose mental instability suggests to Catherine that she might have inherited both his mathematical abilities and his mental problems. Her sister Claire [Kristen VanderWal] has had a successful career and paid the household bills, and returns for Robert's funeral and shows concern for Catherine's welfare. Robert's protege Hal [Jay Russell] has been studying his mentor's notebooks, wondering whether they might contain some "proof" about prime numbers that indicate the man's genius had not left him.

There's not much physical action in Auburn's intelligently cerebral script, though the conflicts between siblings, potential romance between Catherine and Hal, and a deftly managed parent-child relationship provide ample tension and cause for audience engagement and emotional connection with the characters.

When, at the end of Act I, Hal's study of a notebook indicates a landmark mathematical proof that would both rescue Robert's reputation and ensure Hal's own career advancement, Catherine claims that she wrote the proof herself. -- And we watch as she attempt to assert her own mathematical abilities while still questioning whether her father's mental health will likewise impact her. -- Though not completely resolved at the end, at least Hal is willing to listen to Catherine's arguments.

With a company of actors who preserve the integrity of a masterful script, and a finely tuned investigation of universal human relationships, Proof at WOBT is one of the most satisfying productions recently in the River Region. 

Theatre AUM: "On the Verge"

Eric Overmyer's On the Verge [or the geography of yearning] hasn't been seen in Montgomery since the Alabama Shakespeare Festival's brilliant production a few decades ago; but Theatre AUM, under Neil David Seibel's carefully nuanced direction, has mounted a remarkable show that challenges actors and audience as they come to grips with the adventures of three Victorian women explorers trekking through terra incognita [the unknown] both in space and in time.

The challenges come in many guises: except for a quick costume change, each of the three women is on-stage for the intermissionless hour and forty minutes; the script is clever and at times erudite in its mix of colloquial and esoteric language, and there are countless anachronistic references in it; the women encounter a wide variety of bizarre characters whose appearances challenge credibility; their journey begins in 1888 and takes them to 2022; popular culture references bridge through the time periods; and the play presents themes about independent women, the risks we take in our quest for knowledge, and how we contribute to the future of the human race -- in short, the actors have to be at the top of their game, and audiences need to pay strict attention to all the details that pass by so quickly.

Youthful Alex [Yahzane Palmer] often confuses the meanings of words and is curious about new opportunities for women; Fanny [Tabitha Neyerlin] is the more traditionally proper Victorian woman; Mary [Karian Warrington] documents everything and is the most used to traveling solo; together, this trio serves to compliment each other, bringing out the best in their companions while developing their mutual means to press forward despite the obstacles in their way.

The encounters with several characters [Overmyer's original plan was to have a single actor play all the roles, though in the AUM production they are distributed among individual actors] drive them forward from 1888 to 1955 to today, challenging their beliefs and either assisting or placing obstacles in their way.

Mike Winkelman's multi-leveled set is complimented by Val Winkelman's period and quirky costumes and Brandon Baggin's evocative sound design; together with an array of props and witty and informative [though uncredited] projections, they complete the collaborative project.

There is hope at the end of the women's journey through terra incognita, and while we might not know what lies ahead, we are continually on the verge of discovery -- about the world and about ourselves -- and that is exciting.

Sunday, April 10, 2022

ASF: Freedom Rider"

Another "World Premier" at the Alabama Shakespeare Festival, and with a total of only twelve performances, Freedom Rider opened in front of several of the original Freedom Riders and other dignitaries on Friday night. 

Co-produced with New Jersey's Crossroads Theatre Company, and directed by one of its founders, Ricardo Khan [his production of Fly at ASF in 2018 was a powerful depiction of the Tuskegee Airmen], this new play tracks the lives of these heroic Civil Rights activists in 1961 as they made the decision to protest segregated bus terminals and restrooms and lunch counters in the South, trained in non-violent behavior, and learned along their journey from Washington, DC to the Deep South that their mixed racial groups made a huge impact on both the movement and on their individual lives.

As our country has become so divisive on racial issues, it is imperative as ASF Artistic Director Rick Dildine reminded the opening night audience that "we have to tell our stories" lest they be forgotten or reduced to historical footnotes.

The episodic script is a collaborative effort by Mr. Khan, Kathleen McGhee-Anderson, Murray Horwitz, Nathan Louis Jackson, and Nikkole Salter. Filled with many familiar protest songs and period references, and with lengthy exposition that verges on a history lesson for audiences to absorb, its major strengths are demonstrated in intimate scenes between teenaged "riders" and their parents and peers where they are forced to confront their purposeful decisions to embark on the trip South and defend their need to carry on the legacy of their recent ancestors. -- What started for some of them as simply the right thing to do gradually becomes a more dangerous reality that will test their commitment as well as their purpose.

Played on Beowulf Boritt's open-space set with moveable furniture that accommodates numerous locations, with Myrna Colley-Lee's period costumes, and stunning archival projections by Katherine Freer, the production's simplicity allows us to concentrate on the serious events and the real people involved.

The acting ensemble representing the Freedom Riders, their families, and assorted people on both sides of the racial divide, are a fine-tuned group. Individual characters may be sympathetic or detestable, and their interactions garner appropriate reactions, but our attention is focused on the play's subject matter and the fact that these important accomplishments in the 1960s have yet to be completely resolved. As one character remarks: "What happens to us once the freedom fighters leave?" Stay tuned.