Thinking Dog Reviews

The Good, the Bad, and the Boring in Theater and Other Creative Arts Around and About Hampton Roads, VA.

Monday, May 22, 2017

Governor’s School Spring Musical Wows Audiences

            Before Sunday afternoon (May 21) I hadn’t been to the Wells Theater since I wrote theater reviews for Port Folio Weekly, which the The Virginian Pilot shut down in early 2009. So it was a delight to return to there for the Governor’s School for the Arts’ 2017 spring musical, Crazy for You, a Gershwin brothers’ classic first produced on Broadway in 1930 under the title Girl Crazy.
            I hadn’t really planned to write about the show. I was there to see a young woman who’d come to a Tarot class I was conducting at The Venue on 35th. She gave a plug for the show in class, said she was in it, and invited us all, especially to the two shows (out of four) in which she would be performing, since she was double-cast. Tickets were “only $20,” she said, as if that's affordable for anyone. I wasn’t so sure it was for me, but my wife for some reason really wanted to go. So, we went.
            Well, to make a long story short, I had to write about it. Not since Enron at The Generic Theater in the basement of Chrysler Hall have I seen anything—not just a musical but anything—even remotely as  memorable in Hampton Roads.
            And it was a high school spring musical! But, it must be added, it was a Governor’s School for the Arts spring musical. The last show I saw The Gov’s School put on might have been as long ago as 1995 or ‘96. It was a Greek tragedy—not sure any more which—but it blew my mind because it was just so...damn... good.
            According to my count of the playbill, there were 31 kids in the cast of Crazy, with three roles double-cast, so I only saw one of those players. But every one of 31 I saw is an able singer and dancer and many are quite accomplished. And they can act, too (though the show’s book doesn’t ask for much subtlety, just good timing). You don’t find such uniform excellence, not in local adult community productions, sometimes not even among the pros.  
            There was a 20-piece orchestra far upstage, often hidden behind painted scenery dropped in and lifted out. There was a sophisticated sound and lighting system with impeccable timing of effects. There were smooth scene changes, several of them elaborate. There was the cleverest use of props in a variety of choreography from ballet to modern to jazz to tap. There were costumes for every occasion, with impeccable attention to detail. And there was an overall unity of production values that quickly drew us, the audience, into the illusion of a Broadway show in its time, as if we were watching it back then in the first years of the Great Depression. 
            It was that unity of connection with its own time which, finally, made the experience so satisfying—not just entertaining, which it hugely was, but also, as evidenced after the show in the gilded Wells Theater lobby where cast and audience mixed with uproarious happy sounds, enough to change the world, if only for half an hour. A significant half an hour after two-plus significant hours in the theatrical womb.
            Of course, the trick of theater’s magic here is that this show, so authentically of its time, is really an update created in 1992 from the original, adding some songs and bits that weren’t in the 1930 production and renaming it—“rebranding” it, I suppose we say today—with a glossy new moniker. It played for three years on Broadway and has been a popular choice among producers ever since.
            I was looking out especially for my tarot student, wondering if I’d recognize her among all the faces onstage. And I did, as soon as she came on, which was early in the show. She took charge of the stage. O my gosh! I soon realized that she was the female lead! Kathleen Sheets. She played Polly, daughter of the half-senile owner of a failed theater in Dead Rock, Nevada. Deeply in debt to a New York bank, Polly and her dad are about to lose the family theater of past sentimental glory, but Lank Hawkins (played by Kyle Lutes), the town’s unfeeling hotel owner, wants to buy it before the bank takes it. Trouble with that is, he’ll change it beyond recognition, despoiling the family’s proud theatrical heritage back in the days when the gold mines were thriving and there were audiences with money to spend.
            Then Bobby Child comes to town. Played by a winsome Andrew Nelin, Bobby is a dancer forced by lack of success to become a bank representative. (Nelin is a terrific dancer, by the way, and masters a lot of diverse choreography.) He immediately falls in love with Polly and, instead of foreclosing on her family’s theater, decides to save it by putting on a show.
            From there the ups and downs of love, the twists and turns of fortune as the theater’s prospects float and sink, the improbable arrival in the desert of an entire cast of Broadway babes and even Bobby’s mother and fiancee, who he is particularly anxious to avoid, all conspire to create pure, farcical chaos in this absurdly familiar romantic fantasy. Yet beneath its veneer of things-a-poppin’, it moves like clockwork toward its predictable happy ending with all its gags and comic exploitation of common venality and its crooned love songs and ballroom ballets followed by a few jokes and a plot twist to set up a rousing ensemble song and dance that would have brought me to my feet in the aisles if only oppressive social conditioning hadn’t kept me in my seat.
            But the leading delight here among many was to see a kid I’d just met in a tarot class singing and dancing and acting (thin as the script may be) like a seasoned pro on a regional stage. For one thing, I was the lead in my own high school musical way back in 1958. I know that feeling of owning a large stage and loving it. I enjoyed that bit of personal nostalgia.
            Added to it is the mysterious connection between tarot and theater. The artist who executed the paintings in the cards I use—the Waite-Rider version—was Pamela Coleman Smith, an American who designed stage sets for the theater as well. Her tarot paintings are inherently theatrical.
            Beyond such coincidences, there’s a speculation—I don’t know if it’s a fact, but I think it’s credible—that for a brief time under Frederick V of Bohemia and his wife Elizabeth Stuart, daughter of King James I of England, troupes of English actors traveled to Bohemia to perform at the pleasure of the Queen, a theater-lover. In Bohemia they were exposed to courtiers and others who gathered there at the royal couple’s pleasure, philosophers and scholars versed in such esoteric practices as tarot, astrology, numerology, alchemy, and metaphysical philosophies in general. When the theater companies moved on, they took tarot with them, which is how the cards originally came to England.
Frederick V of Bohemia
Elizabeth Stuart

            True or not, the story links tarot to Elizabethan and Jacobean theater; to me as a theater professional since the mid 1980s who has also been practicing tarot since the mid-1970s; and to Kathleen Sheets, a young star who happened to show up in my tarot class at a tiny theater in Norfolk, VA, which was first incorporated (as part of "Elizabeth Cittie”) in 1619, the same year Elizabeth and Frederick were Bohemian monarchs entertaining English theater companies in the tarot-soaked city of Prague over 300 years before Girl Crazy opened on Broadway.
            I especially appreciate metaphysical extensions of ordinary—or, in Sunday’s case—extraordinary experiences, like a great show that’s not only enjoyable for the time you’re in the theater but meaningful for reasons beyond rationality, extending outside the dates, the times, the people who took on the parts. What show are we all playing in here? There’s no telling, but it’s live theater, and that’s what I like.
            Thanks, Polly-Kathleen, for making us aware we could have this experience if we just put down 20 bucks. (Well, 15, since we’re seniors.) And get our asses downtown for a change.
            We’re awfully glad we did. It was inspiring in ways too deep for the ordinary mind to keep track of.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

New Company Premiers an Ambitious Drama
Family Tragedy Rocks The Venue

             Actors Repertory Theater, a newly founded Hampton Roads company, opened its first production, a drama with a high degree of difficulty, at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk last night (Sept. 14), and it’s unlikely anyone in the small audience attending could fail to be impressed with the effort.
            ‘Night, Mother, which won a Pulitzer Prize for author Marsha Norman in 1983, is a surreal exploration of a suicide in real time. That is, in the span of the 90-minute play a daughter informs her mother of her well-planned intention to kill herself, then proceeds to carry out her intent without fast-forwarding the clock.

Eileen P. Quintin (L) and Anna Sosa
            Jesse, the daughter, played by Anna Sosa, has a full plate of troubles. An epileptic since childhood, a wife rejected and divorced, the mother of a grown son who is a thief and an addict, and a psychiatric patient to boot, she has decided with nearly unwavering conviction that she will take control of her sorry life by ending it.
            On the evening in question, a little after 8 p.m.—there’s a ticking clock on the wall of the set that reminds us—she informs Thelma, her mother, played by Eileen P. Quintin, that she plans to shoot herself that night with her absent father’s revolver, which she retrieves from a shoe box in the attic and loads with fresh bullets.
            Thelma, of course, doesn’t believe her at first, and most of the play consists in making it clear that Jesse is serious, revealing through a dramatic progression of beats that the inconceivable is, indeed, going to happen. Along the way the dynamics of a dysfunctional family group—more sorrowful than sordid in any striking way—are revealed in increasingly mournful tones until Thelma, having run out of arguments to stop Jesse, can only plead and wail in impotent grief outside the locked bedroom door behind which her daughter makes good on her resolve.
            The clock on the wall reads 9:40—”not even 10 o’clock yet,” as Thelma cries, hoping to prolong the discussion, as if it’s too early in the night for so rash an act.
            Sosa and Quintin are evenly matched in this tensely built drama, Sosa commanding a peculiar authority of organization and logic to Quintin’s bewildered and, at times, helpless incomprehension. At the core is a familiar theme—a mother’s resistance to her child’s decision to cut the bonds of habit and leave an unhappy home, with all the baggage of guilt and regret and words-not-spoken that flood the mind in the succeeding shock. The detail of suicide certainly raises the degree but not the brand of suffering that such family changes can bring about.
            Director Philip Odango has turned the cafe setting at The Venue 180 degrees, using the floor at the rear of the room, including kitchen and service counter, as playing area while seating audience not only on the floor but also in “balcony” seats on the stage. This serves the play perfectly, with rest rooms and light and sound booth, normally farthest away from the action, now immediately backstage.
            Set and lighting are simple yet elegant—a sofa and coffee table with an upstage sideboard stage left, a dinette with two chairs stage right downstage of the cafe kitchen. Ordinary cafe lighting supplements the theater’s gelled par lights with no disturbance of the illusion.
            Yet, as might be expected in a community production of this intensity and complexity, there are some problems. Quintin, despite a face with a striking and seemingly infinite capacity for wordless sorrow, cannot disguise her youth in contrast to Sosa, who seems the older. That Quintin’s character is in reality more innocent than Sosa’s only partially remedies the impression.
            Added to this is a structural problem, which may have to be laid at Director Odango’s door. The play has distinct beats or movements which should build in intensity as the inevitability of what is going to happen slowly unfolds. However, on opening night these beats did not so much build on each other as proceed similarly in tone and pitch, creating a certain monotony. This is understandable in a production of this kind which only had a month’s rehearsal, but it may fall short of the new company’s objective, as Odango put it in his welcoming curtain speech—to facilitate local artists in taking their art to “the next level” of achievement.
            (And surely the climactic gun shot needs to be a thunderous reverberation, not the indistinct “pop” that was barely audible opening night!)
            That said, Actors Repertory Theater has launched itself with an ambitious and worthy production which, not least among its cultural contributions, offers an opportunity for a community discussion of suicide as a legitimate option for a consenting adult. With that topic quite active among our military neighbors these days, its relevance can hardly be disputed.
            ‘Night Mother continues at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, VA, through Sept. 23, with shows Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. For information and reservations, call 757-469-0337 or visit The Venue on 35th online.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

“Refractions of Light”

Cultural Epic Plays at The Venue

          I can’t remember now who said it, but somewhere along the line I remember hearing that, as a genre, a play is most like a short story. That is, its structure is simple and its theme is single.
            A few plays follow that rule, but many more do not. I can’t vouch for which makes the better play, but Aristotle probably nailed down the purist’s preference when he defined the plot of a tragedy as needing to take place within twenty-four hours.
            Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light, enjoying its first full production this month at Norfolk’s Venue on 35th Street, is more like a novel than a short story. The action spreads across fifty years. A lot of intense developments need to be dramatically explained to an audience in the short space of a little more than two hours.
            That is the first challenge Klein takes on bravely but still needs to make some adjustments. Some scenes are longer than they need to be, while others rush catch-up information at you faster than you can quite assemble it. And the final resolution, at best, is unusual. It may even be paranormal. But in its context, is it believable?
            Beyond those basic points, I find a great deal that’s intriguing, especially regarding local Norfolk history but reaching well beyond that to fundamental human issues.
            The basic plot has already been told in a review of last summer’s staged reading at Little Theater of Norfolk. It can be found in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives here.
            Since last summer Klein has reshaped the plot, but the outlines remain the same: A certain elegant house in the Berkley section of Norfolk is host over the years to a slow social transformation from a white-only culture to inclusion of Jews, blacks, and even the mentally ill. In the end, family and inter-racial harmony go beyond tolerance to embrace the history of all.
            On that path we follow the interesting alliance among an old Southern white matron, a Jewish Holocaust survivor, and a black servant and her lover Joe. Their story is preserved symbolically in the history of the glass in an overhead stain-glass window, which family members, including servants, have assembled piece-by-piece over a couple generations.
            Thus, the play’s title: Refractions of Light.
            Of the five characters in the play, only three appear in both acts: Nettie, Joe, and Harry. Between acts, Rose dies while Ruth is born and grows up to be about thirty before she appears onstage.
            The cast does a great job bringing all this up to suspension-of-disbelief levels. (In some scenes, fewer words would have helped them.) Jennifer Kelly-Cooper as Nettie deliberately and faithfully follows her character’s complex emotions, wherever they may lead. Cliff Hoffman as Harry, the Holocaust-surviving Jew with what amounts to PTSD, hangs on like a trouper to the emotional fun-house roller-coaster of his role.
            (Both Kelly-Cooper and Hoffman have interpreted these roles before in readings with the Virginia Playwrights’ Forum.)
            George T. Davis III takes on Nettie’s lover Joe with gusto. As a less complicated role than Nettie or Harry (at times seeming more like device than character), gusto is enough, it’s what the role needs.
            Beth Pivirotto plays Rose, the matron who grew up in the Berkley house and is more than kind to her Negro servants and their friends and family. But at core she can’t forget they’re not white. This leads to some painful and well-played scenes where Pivirotto makes good use of her onstage intensity.
            And Christa Jones as Ruth, Harry’s grown daughter, now a neurotic psychiatrist, is more than believable. She’s practically real, within the limits of her few appearances.
            Director Terrance Afer-Anderson, who runs the production’s sound and lights as well, has made good use of The Venue’s small stage with its limited backstage access. Characters change costumes behind a narrow flat hiding them stage left. Offstage right is shared with the entering public.
            Sensibly opting for the simplest of sets, Afer-Anderson has kept the staging simple as well, with no false moves to tangle things up. Given the intensity of some of the material, this puts even more responsibility on the actors to make it work. (Let the cast take another bow.)
            The choice of stain-glass gels on the lights rather than a physical window on the stage was another wise decision, a collaboration among Afer-Anderson, Venue co-owner Patti Wray, and lighting designer James Cooper.
            In fact, from playwright to director to actors to technicians (except for feeble sound effects), congratulations are in order. The first full production of Refractions of Light is a noble  effort with vivid reflections (refractions?) on the cultural divides which have most traumatized Americans in the twentieth century and are still with us today (with additions). Change may come slowly, Klein seems to say, but inexorably it comes.
            Two more shows are scheduled at The Venue—tonight, Aug. 11, at 8 and tomorrow afternoon, Aug. 12, at 2:30. The Venue is located at 631 W. 35th St., Norfolk, VA. For more information and reservations, call 757-469-0337, or go online to The Venue on 35th.
            The production is sponsored by the Virginia Playwrights’ Forum, which meets periodically at The Venue to read and discuss members’ plays.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Love Songs for the Road: Take 3

            As the I Ching often states, “persistence furthers.” And playwright Patti Wray is nothing if not persistent, as her signature work, Love Songs for the Road—in development for many years—realizes its first full production at the Little Theatre of Norfolk.
            Unfortunately for those who haven’t seen it, the production closes today, July 15. But having myself seen four or five readings of varying versions of this play over the years, I have to say it’s getting better, and the actors are having fewer problems interpreting it.
            The Thinking Dog has summarized the plot before, beginning with a review from September, 2009, still available in the archives of this site. Not much has changed in that regard, except that older brother Martin is no longer motivated by gambling debts.
            But here comes problem number one. What is Martin’s motivation for wanting to “save Mama”? This has plagued Wray from the start, and in this version it’s still not clear whether he’s called by God to defend his mother’s honor and his father’s memory or simply covets his mother’s inherited assets. In either case, he’s a sicko who needs therapy but probably will never admit it. That much about his character is quite clear. What makes him that way remains less so.
            George Goff, who plays Martin, struggles unevenly with his character’s authoritarian force, as if he sometimes isn’t up to the intensity it takes to be that hard-headed. Or is it hard-hearted?
            Meanwhile, little brother Stu and middle child Carol struggle with what the right thing to do might be as big brother takes over their mother’s life and fortune. The core of the issue is her relationship with her boarder and paramour, a truck driver 20 years her junior named Jim, whose existence Martin especially resents.
            That relationship, of course, is the heart of the story, and four actors take it on heartily, playing Jim and Ellie in former years and Jim and Ellie in the present, after Ellie has broken her hip and Martin has blocked all visitors from her hospital room except for him and his wife (an offstage character). That high-handed act breaks off Ellie’s relationship with Jim and begins a period of torment for both of them, while Stu and Carol wring hands.
            I found the hand-wringing scenes more static than functional in moving the play forward. They repeat the same concerns like a Greek chorus. Maybe that’s their analogous function.
            In any case, Jonathan Hite as Stu and Mary Lou Mahlman as Carol struggle at times to bring variety to their repeating cycle of anxiety. But they finally agree that Stu has been right all along about Martin’s corrupt practices, and the family comes together against Martin to support Jim as Ellie’s legal guardian. The success of that plan trumps Martin’s forged power-of-attorney over her assets, and when the dust settles Ellie and Jim are back together again, free and clear.
            It’s a very touching story, and as played by Beth Pivirotto and Andy Stowe (Older Ellie and Jim) and Candy Dennis and Garney Johnson (Younger Ellie and Jim), it comes alive as never before—the devotion of the older couple to each other, the electricity between the younger couple as their love unfolds. Particularly well crafted is the back-and-forth between Dennis and Johnson as the sexual tension rises. It’s hot, and it makes the play a play, since all else revolves around it.
            But no more touching scene occurs than when Jim, home at last, helps Ellie on her cane to a seat on the porch, where they cuddle in the sun like two love doves. Audiences coo with them, and so do I.
            If that sounds like sentimentality, be reassured, as Wray and others attest, her story’s true. But as The Thinking Dog speculated after last year’s staged reading, that may also prevent Wray from breaking totally free of it, since it happened so close to her in her own extended family. Therein lies the challenge—to translate a bitter family feud into art. In Love Songs, the artistic kernel is present in the love story, which Pivirotto, Stowe, Dennis, and Johnson bring alive. No actor is better than the script. Perhaps working with a professional director who is also a dramaturge is the next best step for Wray to take with this play to smooth out its rough edges and perfect its final shape.
            Credit must go to the Little Theatre of Norfolk for producing this new work. That includes director Jason C. Martens, whose interesting choices include a fantasy reunion between Elder Jim and Ellie which allows the audience to warm up to their relationship before they come back together in real time. (But Elder Ellie and Younger Ellie should have shared a similar southern accent.)
            The simple set designed by Martens and Leigh Strenger is adequate support for the action, enhanced in B. Butterbaugh’s lighting and Kat Fresh’s costumes. The effulgent flower boxes across the set’s downstage edge place us at once in the working class neighborhood of a small city, where the story takes place.
            Finally, mention must be made of Jerry Sheeley’s brief turn as Brock, the attorney Ellie’s family hires to wrest control of Ellie’s care and fortune away from Martin and give it to Jim. Sheeley’s humorous blend of savvy lawyer and human being proves the old theater adage that there is no such thing as a small role.
            Love Songs for the Road has been developed in the Virginia Playwrights Forum, of which Wray is a co-manager. The Forum meets periodically—usually once a month—at The Venue on 35th, a cozy Norfolk theatrical hide-away of which Wray is co-owner.
            The next full production of a Forum play will be Jean Kline’s Refractions of Light, playing at The Venue Aug. 3-12. For more information go to

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Higher Ground, the Film
Testing the Evangelical Experience

             A movie on the shelf of our local video store caught my eye last week. The cover said something about a young woman coming of age through a journey of doubt and questioning. I thought at first it might be a religious movie, but then I noticed the R rating, which ruled out hokey piety. And I’m all about doubt and questioning. So I took a chance and rented Higher Ground.
Higher Ground director and star, Vera Farmiga
            Good thing the description on the case was sufficiently vague. If I’d known beforehand it was about Jesus freaks struggling to keep their faith and optimism in the face of life’s disfiguring blows, I would have put it back on the shelf, figuring that faith in Jesus would somehow win out in the end, none of my questions about life would be answered, and I’d be left feeling slightly irritable that I’d wasted my time watching it.
            But the actual film is nothing like that stereotype. As gentle as it is savage, as merciful as it is just, Higher Ground, recently released on dvd, is a serious, thoughtful work about the real lives of homegrown, American, Evangelical Christians.
            I’m familiar with Evangelical culture. Though raised in a Unitarian household, I also grew up in the 1940s and ‘50s in Lancaster County, PA, then a dominantly agricultural region governed by a traditional, Christian fundamentalist morality which, of course, almost no one could live up to. I learned to get along with fundamentalists because there wasn’t anyone else around to play with. My first kiss with my first girl friend was in a corn field. My closest neighborhood friend through junior high and high school was a Missouri Lutheran who believed in the Bible literally.
            Yet there was also suspicion. My Unitarian interior, fostered by my parents, always understood that, no matter how much I seemed to be accepted by my friends, teachers, and acquaintances, they all most probably and not always secretly believed I and my whole family were going to hell.
            By the time Jesus freaks appeared in the 1960s, rising out of the hippy culture and, in a sense, as an alternative to it, I was more than distrustful of Christian conservatives. They passed too many judgments, left too much out, bullied presumed sinners they didn’t even know with venomous enjoyment. Also, by then I’d had my own spiritual experiences on psychedelic drugs and didn’t want to be told what I needed to do to save my soul. No religion, cult, or sect has a corner on the longing for an eternal home where we may find happiness without fear of wrath or destruction. That’s a basic human longing.
            With complete respect, then, Higher Ground portrays that longing as it expresses itself within a congregation of ardent Evangelical believers who go about their busy lives of serving the Lord while supporting each other as extended family through one after another of life’s temptations, triumphs, and tragedies.
            At the center of the tale is Corinne, a young mother played with astonishing subtlety by Vera Farmiga, who also directs. Even in childhood Corinne seems always a little outside the circles she moves in, always a little puzzled by the behavior she sees around her.
            Yet she strives to participate. In a harrowing scene, when her infant daughter is missing in the wreckage of a freak automobile accident, she cries out in desperation for God. When the child is rescued her husband proclaims it’s God’s answer to her cry. The couple become Christian, joining an Evangelical congregation and receiving full-immersion baptism in a local creek.
            But Corinne, though she tries, never seems wholly comfortable, either in her marriage or in her church. She never enjoys sex, which she tries to avoid, and she can’t seem to fully sign on to the doctrines, either—especially regarding deference to the men. When she tries to speak out on matters of faith, she is reprimanded by the pastor’s wife, who reminds her that it is not a woman’s place to preach. When she consents to see a marriage counselor before leaving her husband, the church therapist—a self-described “prophet of God”—tells her she is possessed by Satan.
            Yet with the possible exception of the therapist, none of the many characters in the film is stereotyped. They don’t speak with one hackneyed voice, their spiritual yearning is portrayed authentically, their longing for community in communion with a divine creator and savior is universal, even if others do not thrill to the same conceptualizations. We live in bewildering times. The Evangelical life portrayed in Higher Ground is a response to these times, but not at the expense of the humanity of the characters portrayed.
            Will Corinne leave the community where her life has been centered for a dozen years or more and go out into the world on her own? It seems so, but we can’t be quite sure. The emotional tug of security in the group is a powerful force she must overcome. Anyone who has experienced the turmoil of breaking with a group identity and striking out on one’s own knows the feeling. That’s the remarkable thing about this film. It humanizes a group all too often demonized on one hand and sanctified on the other. In doing so it comments with elegant delicacy upon the helplessness we all encounter, no matter what our ideology, when we come face-to-face with existential circumstances we may never be able to understand.
            Higher Ground is adapted from a memoir, This Dark World, by Carolyn S. Briggs, who also collaborated on the screenplay. The character Corinne, played so expertly by Ms. Farmiga, is Ms. Briggs’ screen persona, though apparently the film diverges from the book, I suspect to crank up dramatic tension. In any case, the book was quite well received among the hip intelligentsia, as the film has also been. A more interesting question is what Evangelicals think of it.
            Personally, I admired it. I liked the music, too, much of it played live in group worship situations and other communal gatherings. It’s Christian contemporary, which can be quite as lively and heart-felt as any secular song of love and longing.
            But most of all I liked the sheer artistry of the film, a story told about people I’ve tended to avoid in a way that makes me feel their frustrations, joys, and pains as I would feel my own. In that sense the film reaches beyond its ready-made niche to speak to the wider culture, a bridge, however fragile, between Evangelicals and the rest of us, softening hardened perceptions.
            That’s the value of good art. We need more of it in our fractious world.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Lebanon, Pa—The Movie
A Diamond in the Dung

             It was hardly noticeable among the flashy new releases and kinky comedies on the shelves at my fast-paced neighborhood video store. In fact, there was just a single copy. But the title jumped out at me. Lebanon, Pa. I know Lebanon. I grew up twenty or thirty miles down the road in neighboring Lancaster.
            Why would anyone make a film about Lebanon?
            I saw from the jacket it had won a few festival awards. Named the best film made in Pennsylvania in 2010. Hardly a great distinction, but an honor all the same. What could this movie be about?
            The brief synopsis on the cover described a jilted and jaded advertising jockey in Philadelphia who returns to his birth place in Lebanon, PA, to settle his father’s estate. There he finds a teen-age distant niece who is pregnant and an attractive, unhappily married school teacher in a position to help. Inevitable interactions follow, and everyone learns lessons and is changed.
            Not something I would ordinarily rent. But the title intrigued me. I decided to check it out.
            I’m really glad I did. Lebanon, Pa, written, directed, and edited by freshman film maker Ben Hickernell, is easily the most honest and authentic portrayal I’ve ever seen of ordinary life in the suburbs and small towns spreading out from urban America. And it’s never been more topical, with Pennsylvanian Rick Santorum running for President on a Biblical platform which puts the reproductive rights of women on a chopping block.
            But the topicality is incidental to the full and fair hearing the film gives to opposing sides of the urban-rural divide in America.
Rachel Kitson as CJ
            When CJ (Rachel Kitson), a high school senior, becomes pregnant, her boy friend rejects her but later is forced by his father to step up to say he’ll marry her. The parish priest emphatically agrees, and so does Andy (Ian Merrill Peakes), her single dad—Mom died several years before—who has his hands full with her and her insolent younger brother Chase (Hunter Gallagher).
            This tense scene is just about to break out in the open when Will (Josh Hopkins) arrives in town from Philadelphia. His parents had separated long ago and he went to the city to live with his mother. He hardly knew his father. But now, as the only child and his mother still bitter, it’s up to him to go to Lebanon, clean out his father’s house, and sell it.
            CJ tells Will her secret. She’s pregnant but she wants to go to college. She’s looking into abortion.
Josh Hopkins as Will
            That puts Will in the middle between CJ and Andy, who thinks abortion is an abomination while Will has a pro-choice bumper sticker on his late-model VW Bug. Later, after a pair of town red necks beat him up, he tears it off. That comes after he’s further offended folks by getting drunk and familiar in public with Vicki (Samantha Mathis), CJ’s teacher, which in turn brings her irate husband storming to his door to claim his wife. With that, Will’s status in town as an outsider and outcast is sealed.
            This is a values film, obviously, and in watching it I feared I’d rented a pro-life movie out of Regent University. But no. Like life, this film isn’t that simple. Both sides are compassionately represented—the pro-life religious mainstream of Lebanon and the pro-choice alternative centered at the “Planned Parenting” clinic in Philadelphia. But, as in all communities in America today, not everyone in Lebanon is a pro-life religious conservative.
Ian Merrill Peakes as Andy
            Will CJ defy the consensus opinion—get an abortion and follow her plan to go to college in Philly? Or will she submit to the pressure from her father, her boy friend’s family, her pastor, and her peers to stay in Lebanon and raise a family? I could only hope but I could not predict what she would do until the end. To say any more would be to say too much. But the truth of the film’s characterizations and events reminded me a whole lot of my own teenage years in Lancaster in the 1950s. Things haven’t changed that much in southeastern Pennsylvania with its pig-headed, paranoid, Pennsylvania Dutch brand of Christian fundamentalism. Lebanon, Pa captures that traditional, settled ambiance—forever caught in a moral struggle between church and bar, Saturday night and Sunday morning—with the keen and faithful eye of a country music ballad.
            In the end, after all sides are fairly and truthfully represented and just about everyone we’ve met in town becomes involved, CJ must make her own decision. I found the result satisfying. But loose ends are left dangling, as they would be in life. There is no resolution to the abortion debate, but there is resolution for CJ and, perhaps, even for Will. Samantha has some things to work out. Andy certainly does. And brother Chase has grown up a little himself.
            The performances of all the actors are engrossing, but particular credit must go to Kitson as CJ, Peakes as Andy, and Hopkins as Will for the fullness of their portrayals. That would have been impossible without a nuanced, well-crafted script, which handles hot-button issues, particularly abortion, fearlessly and fairly with the jury simply dismissed—no side of the issue either justified or vindicated. Life goes on, happier for some than for others for the time being but same-old same-old for most.
            Critics seem to have given Lebanon, Pa mixed reviews—some disparaging it, others praising it highly. I’m with the latter. It’s a rare kind of movie—low-key, not very innovative, but truthful and heartfelt to the core, and that alone makes up for a lot. Its main fault is a spastic flow of continuity from shot to shot within scenes—the only reminder that this is the work of a youthful, relatively inexperienced, but very promising film maker.
            Rent it, if you can, and see for yourselves. I predict you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Mr. Marmalade: Neither Sweet Nor Tangy
            I wish I could blame it on second night. I’ve done enough theater to know that second night often has lead in its pants after the climax of opening the night before. So, as a member of the audience on second night, maybe I’m wrong to say that I don’t think Mr. Marmalade is a winner.
            Mr. Marmalade is the play (by Noah Haidle) that opened at the Generic Theater in Norfolk, VA, on Feb. 10. In the interests of full disclosure, I was cast to be in that play but decided to work on another project.
            I looked forward, though, to see what director Donna Dickerson and my almost-cast mates would do with it.
            But I’m not sure anyone could do much of anything with it. The script is not very clear. Or rather, it’s clear through muddy water.
            We know that Lucy, a four-year-old girl played by adult actor Celia Burnett, is isolated in her own imagination and in many ways victim of it. We catch on that her new little friend Larry, played by Andre Fedyszn, is her fragile connection to the outside world, and we see a thin ray of hope that she and Larry can be okay, somehow. Or not.
            But those are serious themes. So we have to wonder why Lucy’s mother—Sookie, played by Rene Finkenkeller—is a caricature, serving, perhaps some kind of broad satire. Similarly, the horny guy she brings home from the office one night (Brian Cebrian), Lucy’s uber-teen baby sitter Emily (Missy Hayes Mohr), her sleazy boy friend (Brian Cebrian again), and even Mr. Marmalade’s fey personal assistant Bradley (played by Dean J. Schaan)—they’re all caricatures, serving, perhaps, some kind of broad satire. But this undercuts any seriousness we might feel for Lucy’s situation. Or are we watching an R-rated cartoon?
            As a result, there is about Mr. Marmalade a kind of strange flatness where tragedy and comedy, realism and farce, almost cancel each other out while the deeper meaning of the play is more a thought than a feeling.
            The marvel to me is that this play has a production history going back to 2004, including a New York City run. A number of regional theaters have undertaken it.
            The Generic cast does its best, shifting with the currents as they swim their way from camp to sentimentality to boorish hostility to an imaginary Parisian cafe with live musicians playing “La Vie en Rose” as Lucy dances romantically with Mr. Marmalade (Christopher Kypros), the middle-aged, reformed alcohol-and-drug-addicted workaholic.
            It’s a lovely scene. But, as with most of the rest of the play, we just don’t know what to think. And that doesn’t move us very much.
            See for yourself. Mr. Marmalade runs Thurs.-Sun. through March 4 at the Generic Theater, Downunder at Chrysler Hall in downtown Norfolk. For reservations, call 757-441-2160.