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

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Love Songs for the Road
Reflections on a Staged Reading

Writing is a lonely profession, all the more so if an author doesn’t attract an audience of readers or viewers. As purist and romantic as it may seem, writing to please oneself has its limitations.

But more often than not the road to getting published or produced is a bumpy, gravelly, uphill climb, full of nasty ruts and cul-de-sacs. It’s only natural for writers to seek out one another in mutual support as they bring their verbal offspring into the first glaring light of public scrutiny.

That’s the general idea behind the Virginia Playwrights’ Forum, the foster child of Norfolk’s Generic Theater until this year when it struck out into independent existence at The Venue on 35th Street. There, included in a busy schedule of various performance events, a group of local playwrights meets once a month to listen to readings of one another’s work and to guide the best of it toward a coveted full production.

Midway between that first “cold reading” (usually by local actors who may not have seen the script before) and the nervous excitement of a fully mounted opening-night performance, a play passes through one or more public trial-runs known as “staged readings.”

At their best, staged readings are respectable performances, rehearsed and directed with basic elements of set, props, costumes, and effects of light and sound established. Audiences attending a professionally produced staged reading soon become absorbed in the illusion of the play, quickly forgetting that the actors are holding scripts.

After the reading, audience members are invited to critique the play, following a respectful protocol developed in Playwrights’ Forum meetings. What worked for the audience? What didn’t? Here’s where the rubber meets the road for a playwright. If all goes well, there’s a green light for a full production ahead, which the Forum will promote, if not at The Venue then through other connections.

But if the critique is too mixed or—heaven forbid—negative, it’s back to the word processor for one deflated playwright. Some playwrights do not survive the process and never write another play again.

For the most part, Love Songs for the Road, a “work-in-progress” by P.A. Wray, was enthusiastically received when it was tested before an audience in a staged reading at The Venue on Sept. 18 and 19. After several readings over the past few years, Wray, co-owner of The Venue and co-manager of the Playwrights’ Forum, should be pleased.

Still, the general audience consensus at the reading’s opening night performance suggested that she still has a bit more work to do.

The story, lifted from her own family history, concerns the ugliness which erupts in a family when Ellie, a widowed mother of seven and grandmother of 15, meets Jim, a long-distance truck driver 22 years her junior who applies one day to rent a room in her house and eventually becomes her lover.

But, as the saying goes, the course of true love never runs smooth. Jim, a simple, direct personality, wants to marry Ellie. But she fears this is “unrealistic” because of their age difference. She wants to keep the truth of their relationship a secret—from the neighbors, from her children—and, despite Jim’s objections, her insecurities prevail.

Her eldest son, Martin, however, becomes suspicious of his mother’s relationship and for a time dominates his siblings with the view that Jim is a low-life con artist bent on swindling their mother out of her “assets,” which he, a problem gambler in chronic debt, has a particularly keen interest in keeping in the family.

The plot comes to a head when Ellie, now in her 70s, is hospitalized with a broken hip. Martin, having appointed himself her power-of-attorney by forging her signature on the requisite legal documents, takes control of her affairs, banning Jim from the house and all further contact with Ellie. Powerless and despairing, Jim takes to the road in a marathon of trucking jobs. Ellie, confined to a wheelchair in a hopeless and increasingly unresponsive state, fades away with nothing but her memories while her children, essentially, wait, with varying eagerness, for her to die.

To reveal more would be a disservice to the playwright, though it should be said she doesn’t allow an audience to leave the theater depressed. In a post-play discussion, in fact, most audience members seemed touched by this unconventional love story with its convincing characters and authentic portrayal of the self-serving dynamics common in many—perhaps most—families. This universality at the heart of the play is undoubtedly its enduring strength. That it’s based on a true story only adds to the charm.

Still, some in the audience identified problems with the script, primarily in a tendency, as one viewer put it, to “clean up all the loose ends, more like a book rather than a play.” This is especially apparent in the denouement, where, once the primary conflict of Jim and Ellie’s enforced separation is resolved, the play does not end quickly and neatly, as it might, but goes on for several more pages as characters take turns narrating how the details of the resolution fall into place. Several earlier scenes are similarly overloaded by Wray’s need to explain her plot’s real-world logistics.

In other rough edges, scheming son Martin, as written, seems a bit too transparent as the stereotypical bad guy, while Ellie herself, particularly in the early stages of her relationship with Jim, displays a somewhat insufferable authority as the all-knowing mother with the correct opinion on everything, making us wonder what Jim’s attraction to her as a woman is based on.

And, as some audience members noted, the play should be trimmed. I wondered, in fact, if it might better stand on its own as a single act of ninety minutes or less.

The actors, of course, were above reproach, serving the play at this point more as conduits than artistic egos subject to critical scrutiny. Nevertheless, Jane Dewberry and Fran Peterson, reading Ellie and Jim as they have in three previous readings, have begun to own these roles. Providing able support were Dave Hobbs as Martin, Cliff Hoffman as younger brother Stu, and Steffani Dambruch as sister Carol.

Garney Johnson gave a plausible reading of Jim as a young man, matched by Robin Martineau as a younger Ellie. Fran Peterson directed, making such use of The Venue’s small performance area that, even with seven actors, it never seemed crowded.

Meanwhile, the playwright is left to reflect on the comments she’s received and decide which she will accept and which reject. Eventually, we may expect, another revision of Love Songs from the Road will appear, perhaps in a full production at a theater near you.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Well-Intended But Premature
Tempest Opens at 40th Street

The premise of Norfolk playwright Terrance Afer-Anderson’s latest theatrical venture—Tempest, which opened at 40th Street Stage August 28—is intriguing enough. An estranged couple involved in a bitter divorce is trapped together in the New Orleans house they’re battling over in court as Hurricane Katrina bears down on the city.

Forced against their wills to depend on each other to survive, philandering businessman Jean Luc Theroux (Afer-Anderson) and scorned wife Patrice (Sheila Lee) work their way through their issues, which are considerable, to rediscover the pure flame of love which originally brought them together, even as their outer world, like their marriage, crumbles into a sea rising all around them.

The timely opening of Tempest—the weekend of the 4th anniversary of Katrina—should only add to the dramatic impact of the situation, one would think. And the possibility of a happy ending—the rekindling of love and a reconciliation coming out of what all people of conscience must acknowledge was a failure and scathing indictment of a heartless social contract—offers a burst of optimism to a general audience accustomed to images of devastation associated with Katrina’s visit to New Orleans.

But the very timeliness of this play’s opening may have been its undoing, for in no way was it ready for prime time when it opened on August 28. The script needs pruning and reshaping, the direction needs refining, and the actors and tech crew need several more rehearsals—which I suppose they will now achieve in successive performances—before Tempest is likely to rise to its creator’s expectations.

One element of production which was ready on opening night is designer Dave Olson’s set—a raked, neatly shingled roof with a handsome brick chimney and a serviceable trap door through which Jean Luc and Patrice emerge to escape the flood rising from below. Yet, with sound effects suggesting a pounding rain and howling wind, two dry actors on a dry roof work against the suspension of disbelief.

Many such challenges to credibility bother this production, despite good intentions and energetic performances, particularly by Ms. Lee. Yet neither can compensate for the overall impression of a play rushed into production prematurely.

Tempest continues at 40th Street Stage, 809 W. 40th St., Norfolk, through Sept. 19, with Friday and Saturday performances at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Admission is $10. Call 423-4084 for reservations.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Defending the Slaughter
“Nat’s Last Struggle”

Like many of us, I suppose—African-American or otherwise—actor George T. Davis III thought of Nat Turner as a hero for his famous 1831 armed rebellion against slavery in Southampton County, VA.

But that was before he was offered the role of Nat in “Nat’s Last Struggle,” playwright P.A. Wray’s one-act, one-man drama which opened in preview on August 15 prior to a run the last two weekends of the month at The Venue on 35th in Norfolk.

Once he read the script, Davis confided in a talk-back discussion following his opening-night performance, he realized the Nat Turner story is a good deal more complicated than he thought. Many in the audience, including myself, were with him on that.

In fact, as Wray’s reasonably researched drama makes clear, Nat Turner’s Rebellion, the only armed slave uprising in the sorry 250-year saga of American slavery, is as clear an example as any in history of the power of religion to support believers in extreme delusional acts.

Davis, despite some apparent opening-night nervousness, is powerful as Nat Turner. In fact, his booming basso profundo may be a bit too powerful for The Venue’s small, cafe space, and at times I wished he would modulate his delivery with a bit more variety of emotion—or that I had sat further back from the stage.

That said, it’s easy to believe in him as preacher and prophet, as Nat came to be regarded, his voice easily reaching all who gathered to hear him teach his people how to bear their oppression as he interpreted verses from the Good Book, which he’d learned to read, according to Wray’s version, pretty much on his own through an intuitive recognition of letters and words.

Increasingly convinced, then, that Apocalypse—the end of the world foretold in Revelations—was not only imminent but that he, Nat Turner, was appointed by God to lead the final battle, he and a rag-tag band of blacks set out on the night of August 21, 1831, on a murderous rampage through Southampton County, killing 55 white householders before the militia arrived to put an end to the madness.

Wray’s drama, beginning with Nat’s court sentencing and hanging, focuses on his after-life doubts as he defends his actions before God’s seat of judgment, though we’re not so sure God is there to hear him. As he makes his defense, reviewing the chronology of his life from birth to rebellion, his conviction solidifies that, indeed, all along the way he followed God’s will, God’s direction. In the end he fully convinces himself of this and victoriously dons the white robe of salvation.

Praise be to God.

Yet one can’t help but wonder what metaphysics are operative here if Nat Turner’s criminal madness, however we may empathize with its root causes, can be so easily washed clean. At the least we might wish for some small measure of angelic therapy.

At the same time, though, ambiguity stalks us in any reflection upon this story. Historically Nat Turner’s rebellion has been said to have hardened attitudes both North and South on the issue of slavery and pointed events inevitably in the direction of Civil War. In that sense, a case might be made to validate Nat’s visions and voices, his blow against “the Serpent,” as he calls the evil of slavery, a necessary first shock that did, indeed, eventually lead to freedom for his people, though much blood would be shed—is still being shed—in that process.

Such considerations inevitably arise from Wray’s thought-provoking play, capably directed by Pinky Chappell. A recorded vocal and drumming sound track by Minerva, including a rendering of “Strange Fruit,” the unnerving lynching song made famous by Billy Holiday, adds to the emotional power already in motion, and George Lampkin’s voice-over as the Southampton County death-sentencing judge strikes just the right note in revealing the limitations of the law, where all a society seems equipped to do in the case of a Nat Turner is wash its hands of him and speed him out of this world.

“Nat’s Last Struggle” will play at The Venue, 631 W. 35th St., Aug. 21, 28, and 29 at 8 p.m. and Aug. 23 and 30 at 4 p.m. Admission is $10. For reservations, call 469-0337. For more information on this and upcoming shows and events, go to