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

Sunday, July 17, 2011

At Little Theater of Norfolk

Two New Plays Tested in Staged Readings

Little Theater of Norfolk hosted two staged readings of new plays, the fifth and sixth in the Norfolk Summer Play Fest 2011, with P.A. Wray’s Love Songs for the Road read on Friday, July 15, and Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light on Saturday, July 16. Both playwrights are members of the Virginia Playwrights Forum, centered here in Hampton Roads.

Wray’s Love Songs has been through several revisions over a number of years, its most recent, previous incarnation as a staged reading at The Venue on 35th in September, 2009. (My critique of that version remains posted in the Thinking Dog Reviews archives.)

With this latest version, Wray hoped to eliminate some of the problems audience members identified in 2009 during a talk-back session after the performance. In that effort she was somewhat but not entirely successful.

I’ll skip the plot summary, which appears in the earlier review, saying only that, with her story of romantic love between a widowed grandmother and a truck driver twenty years her junior, Wray taps into a rich vein of social and psychological material, red meat for any writer. Added to that is the stimulation of intrigue, as the widow’s meddling children, insisting they are doing the best thing for Mother, plot to break up her romance and, essentially, take her into protective custody, powerless to exert her own will as they wait (and perhaps hope) for her to die.

Thus the play is, foremost, a cry for senior liberation from the social stereotypes and resulting restraints put upon elders by the generation they gave birth to. Particularly destructive is the denial of the freedom to love again. These themes come across quite clearly. There is nothing muddled about them.

It seems to me, then, that Love Songs is at core a political play about civil rights for seniors.

Problems arise, though, in repeating loops of dialogue and in the development of the characters, whom Wray attempts to present as rounded human beings when they also represent different sides of a debate.

For that reason the play drifts about rudderless at times, with a character like eldest son Martin coming across as a villain of melodrama, shamelessly bullying his weaker siblings into betraying their mother, while the lovers gain our sympathy as sincere and believable human beings. Foundering between political parody and psychological realism, which way should the play go?

Personally, I think the best bet is to go with a Brechtian-style parody with clear-cut villains and heroes and good and evil plainly marked. That is where the strength of this play has always been. But as currently written, the stage time spent on explaining real-world motivations, legal maneuvers, and double-crosses among family members bogs down the action. Suspending realism for parody might eliminate the need for much of that.

But parody may not be what the author has in mind. In that case, my advice is to identify more clearly each character’s emotional center. The place to begin is with Martin, whose despicable actions drive the plot. Where is his vitriol coming from? What is his vulnerability, his soft spot?

Wray has provided one possibility without particularly focusing on it. It’s that Martin can’t stand to think of his widowed mother with a lover, especially one close to his own age. (Is the conflict oedipal?) Conceivably, then, all Martin’s actions can be explained—and satirized—from that point of reference, where he is not evil but, for a variety of reasons, scared stiff by his mother’s unconventional behavior, which threatens the fragile balance of his own unstable world.

With Martin’s character settled, the clarity of the others’ should emerge with more ease.

The assembled actors for Love Songs were genuine troupers, giving dedicated performances under director Aliki Pantas.

Candy Dennis and Andrei Fedyszyn were convincing as the more youthful Ellie and her love, Jim. Bobbie Hite and Mike Hoover were committed as Ellie and Jim after they’d aged, but those roles need refining, particularly in the second act. What makes Jim come back? Is Ellie faking her dementia or is it real?

Bill Armstrong is a hoot as the evil brother Martin. But his characterization also raises the issue of whether this play is a drama or a melodrama.

With that fly in the ointment, Jason Martens and Elizabeth Dickerson, who play brother Stu and sister Carol, are left with mushy identities to work with, initially following Martin like sheep, then shifting into principled rescuers to facilitate a happy ending. Meanwhile, Jon Hite’s role as a policeman has potential as farce, but his role as Brock, attorney-to-the-rescue to defend the lovers, is probably not necessary to a firmed-up plot.

Also unnecessary are Ellie’s four offstage children. The three onstage brats are quite enough to make the case.

We as a society don’t understand the elder years, largely because so relatively few people up to now have experienced them. Making matters worse is our glorification of youth and marginalization of age. We are still an ageist culture. Love Songs for the Road lays the groundwork for a fresh look at those prejudiced attitudes.

Jean Klein’s Refractions of Light deals with a double-dose of prejudice—anti-Semitism and American racism—which are woven into a common bond established between a Jewish-American holocaust survivor and an African-American survivor of a state mental hospital. The two realities, Klein suggests, are equally shattering.

But that’s giving away the ending. Before then, the play tells the story of social change from 1924 to 1980 as it manifests in the refracted light of a stained glass window in the parlor of an elegant house in the Berkley section of Norfolk.

It can’t pretend to critique the script in any meaningful way. The play was a staged reading only in the sense that it was a reading of a play on a stage, bare except for a rectangular stained-glass window suspended from above. It was up to the actors, with little rehearsal, to walk through the play miming everything—telephones, tea cups, the darkness of night, knocks on the door, even a live baby—and with scripts in their hands much was lost in translation.

Still, the story is clear enough, if also a little odd. A young white woman, Rose, agrees to raise the child of her friend, a young black woman, Lily, should Lily die. She does die, and the child, Nettie, grows up in Rose’s house with the stained-glass window.

Twenty years later Joe, Nettie’s black sweetheart, comes back from World War II with the idea that racial equality’s day has come. He wants to marry Nettie and, funded by the GI Bill, buy Rose’s house and go to college to become a lawyer. He realizes that last dream, but Nettie, already pregnant with Joe’s child, disappears, and Rose, now an old woman fading into the other world, hedges on selling Joe the house because of the tensions it could cause in a respectable white neighborhood.

Four years later Rose has died, and Harry, a German Jew prospering in America as a neighborhood grocer, has bought her house. He hires Joe, back from law school, as his lawyer. End Act I.

Act II takes place in 1980, with Harry, now in his 60s, holding out against city developers who are tearing down the old houses on his block to make way for gentrification. Joe, still his lawyer, can’t block Harry’s certain eviction. To say more would be to say too much, but the house, which black, white Protestant, and Jew all at one time called home, binds them together in a warm embrace of common humanity, even though the bulldozers will soon arrive to tear the house down. What we do with that ambiguity is left to us.

Does it work? Under the extreme minimalist conditions of this reading, it’s impossible to judge. Too much was left to the imagination. It was like watching a first rehearsal, with the secrets hidden in the words barely activated.

But even if a number of points in the script may need clarification, the play’s through-line is secure from beginning to end. There are just moments of confusion when something seems to be missing.

One of those moments recurred for me several times, whenever the light shining through the stained-glass window was mentioned. Clearly the window is meant as a unifying motif, referenced even in the play’s title. But I thought the house was the leading symbol.

An energetic cast did a credible job of bringing the story alive with no technical enhancement. Francis Mitchell, Jennifer Kelly-Cooper, Philip Wrencher, Brittney Harris, and Cliff Hoffman, all acting largely on instinct, carved out some interesting rough-draft characters. James Bryan directed and read top-of-scene stage directions. LTN Artistic Director Brendan Hoyle led the post-show talk-backs for both staged readings.

The Norfolk Summer Play Fest continues at the Generic Theater next weekend, July 22-24, with the premier of Chip Fortier’s The Eulogist.

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