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.