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

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.