Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

 

“You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood,” wrote Thomas Wolfe; that’s the thought that filled my mind while seeing the Curtain Players production of Ed Graczyk’s Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, a play about a reunion of James Dean fans flocking back to their Texas hometown twenty years after the actor’s death. Of course, some of the women never left, some left and came back, and still others are returning for the first time; and then there is one who can never come back as they are no longer the same person.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Erin Dilly (Joanne)
 

Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was first performed in Columbus forty years ago, eventually making its way to Broadway and then to film in 1982. Set in a 5 & Dime store in McCarthy, Texas, the play shifts time periods from 1975 to 1955 to tell the story of a group of friends from high school reuniting to catch up on their lives and commemorate the life of their teen heart throb, James Dean. There is Mona (Kathylynn St. Pierre), who stayed behind and raised her son Jimmy Dean, whom she says was the result of a one-night stand with James Dean while he was on location in nearby Marfa filming Giant; Sissy (Kasey Meininger), the buxom wild girl who left town but returned five years earlier after a divorce; Stella May (Adriana Pust), the pushy, loud and proud Texan; Edna Louise (Sara Priest), eternally naive and pregnant; and then there is Joe (Patrick Petrilla), who has returned as Joanne (Erin Daily), shocking the group with his transition but also prepared to reveal the truths so many of them have hidden. 

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Standouts in the cast are Kathylynn St. Pierre as a willowy Mona, both fragile and stubborn at the same time, trying so desperately to hold up a useless facade; Erin Daily is often inscrutable as Joanne, making her revelations about the women all the more surprising and powerful; Kasey Meininger plays Sissy quite a bit like Cher did in the film while still bringing a vitality all her own; Adriana Pust is a strong and domineering Stella May; and Patrick Petrilla is a sensitive and forelorn Joe, a tricky part as it requires him to come off as closeted while also genuinely infatuated with the young Mona.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne) and Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona)
 
Director Mark Blessing expertly navigates telling parallel stories and switching time periods using the same location and most of the same actors (the exceptions being Carly Young playing Mona and Caitlin Brosnahan playing Sissy as teenagers). This switch proved to be confusing in Robert Altman’s film version, but the subtle shifts in lighting as well as costume Mr. Blessing employs here do the trick perfectly. The director and his wife, Deborah, are also responsible for the meticulous set decor of the Five & Dime, with the set designed with a real eye for the time period and requirements of the story by Drew Washburn. There is even a vintage menu with movable letters and prices for the food items for sale at the counter; it truly looks like a shop open for business!

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Caitlin Brosnahan (Sissy as a teen), Carly Young (Mona as a teen), and Patrick Petrilla (Joe)
 
Come Back to the 5 and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean was certainly ahead of its time by bringing up the subject of being transgendered forty years ago, though I wouldn’t call this a gay show by any means. In fact, the story comes off like Joe transitioned because he found it more acceptable to become a woman rather than being gay, not because he was fulfilling a dream of being his “authentic self” like is the accepted narrative of today; this stereotype that gay people actually want to be the opposite sex has surely been debunked by now. Still, I get the impression that Joe reappeared as Joanne in the play as a device to show how people can make a complete 180, and how our memory of people may be frozen in time and bear no relation to the reality of the moment. Joanne holds a mirror up to Mona, Sissy, and Juanita (Kate Charlesworth-Miller, the proprietor of the 5 & Dime shop) to reveal truths about their past that they would prefer remain hidden, all the while coming from someone who is familiar to them as Joe while still being a stranger as Joanne. The discussion of being transgendered or transitioning is fairly superficial in this piece, but the fact that it was a plot point at all was certainly revolutionary for the time even if in retrospect it represents a rather archaic view of the topic.

 

Photo: Brooke Justiniano – (left to right) Erin Daily (Joanne), Kathylynn St. Pierre (Mona), Kasey Meininger (Sissy), and Adriana Pust (Stella May)
 
Curtain Players’ Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is nostalgic in the best way, a play about memories, the past, and the challenges of friendship. Sometimes it takes a very dear friend to tell you the truth about yourself in a way that you can understand and accept, and this message of the play is quite clear in this handsome production. This is one of those plays that works all on its own but can also instigate a lively discussion afterwards.

*** out of ****

Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean continues through to February 21st in the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/4_five_and_dime.php

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (Standing Room Only [SRO] – Columbus, OH)

“You just never know about anyone else’s marriage, including your own.” I remember hearing this quote attributed to Nora Ephron on “The View” years ago, though for the life of me I can’t confirm it now; heck, I’ve probably badly paraphrased it. Still, the sentiment of that statement stayed with me, and it comes to mind now after seeing Standing Room Only’s solid production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the 1962 Edward Albee play about the games a married couple play with (and on) each other that are misunderstood by their young guests in the wee hours of a Sunday morning after a party.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – Greg Hoffman (George) and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Gail Griffith is Martha, the loud and brash daughter of the head of the college at which her husband teaches. She laughs and drinks and curses a lot, and Ms. Griffith is up to the challenge. It can’t be easy to be so thoroughly difficult, so caustic and in-your-face, but you wouldn’t know it to see how Ms. Griffith performs in the role. Her Martha isn’t all harridan as the part is often played, but she’s far from sweet also; there is a deep pain at the heart of her Martha, and her acting out is her way of dealing with it.

Greg Hoffman is Martha’s husband, George, playing him alternately as submissive and then sneakily dominant. He is an associate professor in the history department, often finding himself the butt of Martha’s one-liners as he dotes on her. Mr. Hoffman is fine in the part though he sometimes speeds through his lines quickly during the most intense scenes, which perhaps contributed to a happy accident at the performance I attended. There is a scene in act one where George and Nick are alone and asking each other questions. “How many kids do you have?” asked Nick, to which Mr. Hoffman said, “That’s for you to know and me to find out.” The correct line is, “That’s for me to know and you to find out,” but the pronoun slip-up during a scene all about how George is finding out information about Nick’s life to use against him is quite telling and clever. Mr. Hoffman owned the altered line and marched on with confidence; it may not be what Albee wrote, but it fit with the intention of the moment.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – (left to right) Anthony Guerrini (Nick), Greg Hoffman (George), and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Anthony Guerrini plays Nick, the studly new professor in the biology department, and Amy Rittburger is his giggly wife, Honey. They have the misfortune of arriving at George and Martha’s home and becoming a part of their vicious interactions. Mr. Guerrini comes off as uneasy, which works for the part in some ways, eventually relaxing into it during the second act. Nick isn’t a particularly likable character, and it feels like maybe Mr. Guerrini is tentative in showing that, like he is afraid to not be liked on stage. Ms. Rittberger has the least to do in the underwritten part of Honey, but she’s great at reacting to what is going on around her. There were many times during the performance when I would glance back at her and to see how she was right there in the moment, listening and present even if she had nothing to say. Though Honey’s breakdown in the third act is played more like she is suffering from physical pain (Ms. Rittberger grabs her stomach and rocks on her knees) rather than the pain of embarrassment and betrayal (which is the reason for her outburst), Ms. Rittberger makes an impact in a part lesser actresses might sleep through.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington – Set Designer: Andrew Weibel

Andrew Weibel’s set for George and Martha’s living room looks and feels just right, vintage turntable console, drab artwork, stained walls, and worn chairs and couch blending right in. It’s easy to suspend disbelief and become involved in the play with such an accurate, lived-in backdrop. As a fan of the 1966 Academy Award-winning Mike Nichols film and having listened many times to the original Broadway cast recording (it was one of the rare plays recorded in its entirety for LP), I was surprised and delighted to discover so many more moments in this edition of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this being a version which Mr. Albee has revised and expanded over the years. The language is more coarse than what they could probably get away with on stage or in film back in the ’60s, but it doesn’t come off as gratuitous; I believe this is just how these inebriated characters would talk to each other, four-letter words and all.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – (left to right) Greg Hoffman (George), Anthony Guerrini (Nick), and Gail Griffith (Martha)

Don’t bother trying to figure out the title Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as it is a punchline to a joke we didn’t hear which was said at the party earlier in the night that apparently was quite amusing to middle-aged couple, George and Martha, as well as their young guests, Nick and Honey. When the title is sung it isn’t funny to us in the audience because we don’t know the joke or its context, the same conundrum faced by Nick and Honey as they see Martha and George argue, attack, and degrade each other. It’s like Martha and George have their own inside joke for which we only see the punchline in the form of barbs and pain.

 

Photo: Mick Pennington – Gail Griffith (Martha) and Greg Hoffman (George)

Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a modern classic, and this production has a lot going for it. With three acts and two intermissions, it can seem like quite a daunting way to spend three hours, but it ends up being anything but; there is a lot to take in, and it all flows extremely well. While the film adaptation is terrific, it isn’t the final word on this piece; Standing Room Only brings electricity to Mr. Albee’s prose with intensity and a pretty good cast willing to go the distance.

*** out of ****


Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
continues through to February 7th in the Shedd Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.srotheatre.org

Quiet Peninsula (MadLab – Columbus, OH)

Imagine if, instead of being about a young boy who could see dead people, the surprise ending of The Sixth Sense was the entire point of that film. Rather than being an additional “ah ha!” moment that supplemented the plot, such a change would mean that the other hour and a half of the film would’ve just been filler that would only be clear at the very end. That’s basically what is to be had with Brandon Ferraro’s Quiet Peninsula, a play with three separate stories that share links that are only fully apparent at the conclusion, currently being presented by MadLab through to December 19th.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Chad Hewitt (David) and Michael Moore (Walter)
 
The three stories that comprise Quiet Peninsula all take place at the same time on one night in Detroit; the first is about two cops who await the fate of a citizen one of them accidentally shot; the second has a man pleading with his vegetative father to add him back to his will; the third features a basketball player being held from participating in his school’s game because of a serious allegation. At first glance there doesn’t appear to be any connection between each of the stories; when the pieces start to come together, it still doesn’t add up to all that much anyway. Director Audrey Rush stages each scene with minimal set pieces and props on a stage with circular designs everywhere. Symbolic overkill? Nah, it doesn’t feel like it, but then again the play doesn’t feel like all that much of anything. At least it is never boring and keeps a steady pace towards the denouement, if it could be called that.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Sheree Evans (Lauraine) and Kathryn Miller (Jess)
 
Two performers stand out as being particularly effective: Sheree Evans as Lauraine from the first story, and Taylor Martin Moss as Bryan from the last. Ms. Evans has a way of managing silence that makes her despair all the more real, saying so much with just a look; she switches with frightening ease from joking about being a lesbian to being distraught over accidentally shooting an unarmed teenage boy. Mr. Moss exudes energy and strength as a basketball player just aching to get back into the game; his strong presence nearly levels everyone with whom he shares the stage. There is a moment near the end of his story when he makes a candid remark so flippantly that I held my breath in anticipation of what was to come next; what did follow came off as rather silly and poorly executed, but not because of Mr. Moss. I hope to see more of both Ms. Evans and Mr. Moss in the future as they have the rare ability of making the most of whatever material they are given and helping it to appear better than it is.

 

Photo: Kyle Jepson – (left to right) Nikki Smith (Kathy), John Kuhn (Derek), and Taylor Martin Moss (Bryan)
 
I usually enjoy the rather “off the beaten path” plays I see at MadLab, with Quiet Peninsula so far being the exception. None of the three stories in the piece are developed enough to forge any investment in the characters or their situations, though a few of the performers did stand out, making the seventy-five-minute running time more palatable than it would’ve been otherwise. There were several people around me in the audience that responded very enthusiastically at the conclusion of the play and during the talkback afterwards, but I wasn’t one of them.

** out of ****

Quiet Peninsula continues through to December 19th in the MadLab Theatre located at 227 North Third Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://madlab.net/quiet-peninsula.html

Skylight (Columbus Civic Theater – Columbus, OH)

Imagine an experiment where the script is the control and the production the variable; do that and you’ll get a sense of the expectations when staging a work that has been preserved in performance and is out there for study. Often what comes before is used as a kind of yardstick to measure future productions. That’s not to say the original cast recording of a musical or filmed production of a play is definitive or even the best, but it does cut its own path, against which what comes later is measured in standard deviations. Has there ever been a production of Gypsy that wasn’t informed by Ethel Merman, or of A Streetcar Named Desire in which Marlon Brando was not used as a point of comparison? I ask this question because I just saw what Columbus Civic Theater is doing with David Hare’s Skylight, a play that just won the Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play in 2015 and was chosen by patrons as the “audience choice” play of their season, and it led me to view a video of the 2014 London production that made for an interesting comparison – more on that later.

Skylight premiered in London in 1995 and then on Broadway a year later. It is about Kyra Hollis, a youngish teacher visited by two men from her past, Tom and Edward Sergeant, a father and son. Kyra worked for the family years ago, having left abruptly when it was discovered that she was having an affair with Tom, the father. Tom’s wife has now died, and Edward visits Kyra out of worry for how his dad has been dealing with it. Tom arrives later the same day to hash things out with Kyra, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle what they once had. The entire play takes place in Kyra’s apartment in a less than glamorous section of London, and over the course of the night Tom and Kyra debate the merits of their past as well as their current lives, separated so drastically by differences of social class.

 

Photo: Chuck Pennington III – Set Design by Richard Albert
 
I went into this production not knowing the story and not having seen the recording of the recent London run. The first thing I noticed was the terrific set designed by Richard Albert representing Kyra’s run down apartment. The space looks lived in and worn, bookshelves and cabinets looking lovably less than perfect, with a raised area for a small fridge, sink, and stovetop, all functional. I’ve seen many plays at Columbus Civic with a variety of sets – some awful, some very good – and this is the best; it makes terrific use of the space and its part in telling the story.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Edwyn Williams (Tom) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Edwyn Williams is Tom, the successful and rich restauranteur, and his performance is all bluster and consonants, forcefully spraying his words like a pushy salesman. Mr. Williams plays Tom as bossy and charmless, and even a bit whiny. He has what Oprah calls an “ugly cry,” as in an emotional moment near the end his entire countenance puckers, revealing his struggle to produce tears. I sensed not a drop of chemistry between his Tom and Kyra, played rather demurely by Priyanka Shetty. Ms. Shetty has wonderful, crisp diction, and a strong speech in the second act in which her passion runs true, but I can’t grasp what she could have ever seen in Tom, and because of that I can’t follow why Kyra makes the decision to revisit her past with Tom at the end of the first act. As someone who has “revisited” the past with exes after the breakup, it is always bittersweet, reminding me both of why I was attracted to them in the first place while also reinforcing why we were no longer together; I don’t sense any of this with Kyra, who smiles frequently and comes off as submissive without much reason.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Matthew Sierra (Edward) and Priyanka Shetty (Kyra)
 
Matthew Sierra plays Tom’s concerned son Edward, whose appearances bookend the play. Mr. Sierra’s hairstyle and clothing look right out of 1995 (as they should – the play is set in that year), and he has a kind of nervousness that is difficult to interpret. His wonky British accent doesn’t help much, as it changes sometimes mid-sentence; it adds to an off-kilter malaise that clouds this production and its characters. I will say that his reappearance at the end was most welcome, as his chaste affection for Kyra is more clear and he seems far more relaxed.

At the end of the day, Columbus Civic Theater’s Skylight is not an embarrassment to anyone, but I don’t feel that it shows any of the artists involved (save for Richard Albert and that great set) in the best light either. It’s a bland, mediocre production that flounders, neither entirely fish nor fowl. The actors appear to be trying so hard to tell this story on stage without the proper guidance. A different interpretation would be fine, but I felt like this production lacks any interpretation at all, any distinctive personality or viewpoint. It is performed in a pattern of line *pause* line *pause* that is unnatural and stilted, more like a staged reading.

 

Photo: Columbus Civic Theater – Priyanka Shetty (Kyra) and Edwyn Williams (Tom)
 
The audience seemed to like Skylight the night that I attended with my friend, but we left the show bewildered and feeling like we were missing something. The production left me puzzled, and the story didn’t make much sense to me. I thought, “It must be the play.” Later I saw the National Theatre Live film of a performance of the 2014 revival of Skylight (the same production and cast that traveled across the ocean this year to win the Tony Award); that’s when I realized that the problem wasn’t with the play – it was this production. I viewed the video of the London production, and suddenly the play made sense! The script was the same, but the performances so completely different in a way that supported and enhanced the material. I didn’t know so much of the play was funny! Bill Nighy is quick and witty as Tom, and it’s easy to see what Carey Mulligan as Kyra would see in him. Lines that land with a thud in Columbus Civic’s production were greeted with laughter in London, and moments where characters experience shifts in mood were now clear and easy to follow.

Is it fair to compare this video to the production at Columbus Civic Theater? I don’t see why not, as both have the same script from which to work. I didn’t go in with preconceived notions by having seen the London production first; I entered blank, wanting to be entertained, and only afterward sought out the other production.

** out of ****

Skylight continues through to November 22nd in the Columbus Civic Theater located at 3837 Indianola Avenue, and more information can be found at http://www.columbuscivic.org

The Elephant Man (CATCO – Columbus, OH)

“If your mercy is so cruel, what do you have for justice?”

The most important part of a play is whether or not the story is being told. Don’t get me wrong – I love big sets and lots of production values – but at the end of the day it all boils down to the story, and if the acting, set, and direction support the telling of it or not. CATCO’s production of Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is a brilliant example of a play that works, beautifully written with challenging and touching scenes that need no more than to be performed by capable actors. This production has talented performers on board, so it is disheartening when the staging and set get in the way of the story being told.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 

The Elephant Man premiered in London in 1978 before opening to acclaim on Broadway in 1979, garnering Tony Awards for Best Play and Best Direction of a Play; an Emmy-winning television adaptation was broadcast in 1982; a theatrical film directed by David Lynch was released in 1980, but it was not based on the play; and Broadway revivals in 2002 and 2014 starred Billy Crudup and Bradley Cooper, respectively. It is about the true story of Joseph (“John”) Merrick, a severely deformed man who was a side show attraction in the late 1800s in England. He suffered much abuse and ostracism before being rescued in a sense by Dr. Frederick Treves, who studied and made a home for him at The London Hospital. He experienced being a part of high society and receiving compassion for a time before his death in 1890 at the age of twenty-seven.

The Elephant Man is widely recognized as a classic; a tearjerker in the best sense of the word, and a grand challenge for any actor as the deformity of Merrick is suggested rather than presented realistically with prosthetics. I was fully prepared for an emotional experience upon attending this Steven C. Anderson production, and yet I was unmoved. Thinking perhaps I was suffering from a foul mood, I saw it again later in the week and again was emotionally dry. Staged in a three-quarter thrust setting, I saw it from the left and then the right with different elements catching my attention both times.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
Each scene is introduced with a title projected on a backdrop comprised of a line of dialogue from the forthcoming scene. The support beams in the octagonal raised platform obscure parts of these titles from being read from nearly every seat save for the extreme angles on the far left and right sides. A printed list of these scene titles is included in the program, and an announcement is made before the production commences about the issue. But here’s the thing – they aren’t necessary. They telegraph the action, break up transitions unnecessarily, cause a lot of leaning on the part of the audience to see them around the support beams, and are the cause of audible shuffling of the paper inserts throughout the show.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
The first time I saw this production was to the left of the action, and the performances that stood out to me were by Ben Gorman as Dr. Frederick Treves and Sarah Dandridge as Mrs. Kendal, an actress who befriends Merrick. Mr. Gorman is adept at projecting concern and, ultimately, paternal feelings for Merrick, while Ms. Dandridge is especially touching when her countenance melts as Merrick says, “Sometimes I think my head is so large because it is filled with dreams.” She understands fully the layers of her part (she is an actress playing an actress playing a friend), and during that scene I could see as her eyes began to tear that Merrick’s words were slicing through those walls to get to her core. From that point on, Ms. Dandridge adjusted her performance to be consistent with her emotional awakening, and it was a beautiful sight to behold. And yet, Connor McClellan as John Merrick, the key to the play, struck me as distant and cold, partly because I mostly just saw his back.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Ben Gorman (Dr. Treves) and Christopher Moore Griffin (Ross)
 
My second viewing of this work was on the right side, and this time I was more responsive to Mr. McClellan’s performance while also being impressed by Christopher Moore Griffin as Ross, Merrick’s abusive manager, who eventually robs and leaves Merrick for dead. Mr. Griffin is gruff and distinct with a hint of Alfred P. Doolittle in him, a biting embodiment of the cruelty to which Merrick has become accustomed. Mr. Griffin then appears solemn and pious as Bishop Walsham How, so opposite his role as Ross that I wasn’t entirely sure he was the same actor. And as for Mr. McClellan’s performance as John Merrick…

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick)
 
“Merrick’s face was so deformed he could not express any emotion at all,” states Mr. Pomerance in the introduction to his published play. “His speech was very difficult to understand without practice. Any attempt to reproduce his appearance and his speech naturalistically – if it were possible – would seem to me not only counterproductive, but, the more remarkably successful, the more distracting from the play.” Mr. McClellan appears to be working very hard to emulate Merrick’s posture and frozen visage, so much so that a lot of the emotion doesn’t come through. It doesn’t help that the set and staging works to make nearly every seat in the theatre partial view for extended periods of time, even the center section. Mr. McClellan comes off as so focused and technically accomplished that at times I was acutely aware that it was a performance in a play, impressive as hell, but with invisible barriers. Perhaps some of this is intentional, as he seems to relax his tight grasp as the play goes on, and it helped to see so much more of his face when I saw the play for the second time from the right. And yet, when I finally was experiencing more of Mr. McClellan’s effort, I missed out on what touched me so in Ms. Dandridge’s performance when I viewed the play the first time from the left. It was almost as if I had to cut between both performances I saw from different angles in my mind to get the most out of the play; no doubt seeing it for a third time from the center would reveal even more that the work has to offer, but why should that be necessary if it is staged and presented so that everyone has a clear view of the pertinent action? The answer: it isn’t.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Connor McClellan (Merrick) and Sarah Dandridge (Mrs. Kendal)
 
There is only one scene that I found to be poorly played; it is when Mrs. Kendal “exposes” herself to Merrick. In the 1982 television version of the play, the scene implies nudity by showing her slowly unbuttoning and unlacing her blouse and corset, her bare back to the camera. Her gaze stays fixed on Merrick, and her warning, “If you tell anyone, I shall not see you again,” is said with weight. It is a tense, sexually charged moment in that production, but here it comes off as comical as Mrs. Kendal merely shows a bit of her corset to Merrick, smiling as if it is a game. I don’t think bare breasts need to be shown, but without any skin on display the reaction of Dr. Treves upon entering the room made little sense.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer
 
CATCO’s production of The Elephant Man is ultimately a mixed bag. There are some extremely good performances, but design and staging elements work against the storytelling. I saw the play twice and had a different reaction each time, but both experiences fell short of reaching the potential of the material. There is still a lot to admire here, and it is a very handsome production overall, but I walked away feeling less affected than I had expected.

** out of ****

The Elephant Man continues through to November 8th in Studio Two at the Riffe Center on 77 South High Street in downtown Columbus, and more information can be found at http://catco.org/shows/2015-2016/the-elephant-man

Zooman and the Sign (PAST Productions Columbus – Columbus, OH)

  

The collective power of intimidation and fear and the effect it has on a neighborhood is explored in Past Productions Columbus’s production of Charles Fuller’s Zooman and the Sign. First performed in 1980, the play is about a family whose little girl is murdered in front of their home by a stray bullet shot by a thug (“Zooman”) known within the community. Fearing retaliation by Zooman as well as getting involved with the police, the neighbors who witnessed the murder refuse to speak up to aid the family in catching the murderer. The father, upset by the betrayal of his friends, erects a sign calling out his neighbors for standing in the way of justice.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – Demia Kandi (Rachel) and Ricardo Jones (Reuben)
 
Standouts in the cast are Demia Kandi as Rachel, the mother; Ricardo Jones as Reuben, the father; and Tony Roseboro as Emmett Tate, Reuben’s brother. Ms. Kandi and Mr. Jones are believable as a couple grieving the loss of their daughter while also struggling with their relationship. Ms. Kandi brings raw emotion in moments that quickly bubble to the surface organically, like when she talks about her daughter recently having had her first period; she begins the play almost stoic with shock, building to a finale in which she can no longer keep her feelings bottled up. Mr. Jones is solid as the father who regrets the absences from his family, but who stands unafraid of calling out the cowardice of his neighbors; he lays bare his feelings with vulnerability in a way that is rare to see in a man with such a dominant presence. Mr. Roseboro kickstarts every scene that he is in, his quips quick and often quite funny, bringing touches of humor to a deadly serious topic. The rest of the cast is good too, but it is these three performances that will compel you to sit up and pay attention.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – Tony Roseboro (Emmett)
 
Director Truman Winbush Jr. keeps the pace consistent, not allowing anyone to wallow too long in a moment. At under two hours with an intermission, the story has just enough time to unfold without feeling rushed or languid, and emotional histrionics are kept at bay. There is plenty of pain and heartache in this story about the senseless murder of an innocent child, but it is the fear on the part of the community and how it only serves to give power to the wrong people that is the focus. Mr. Winbush makes sure both parts of the story are being told and are clear.

 

Photo: Patrick Evans – (left to right) Ricardo Jones (Reuben), Demia Kandi (Rachel), Sean Winbush (Victor), and William Winbush (Zooman)
 
By the time Zooman and the Sign reaches its inevitable conclusion, it was apparent to me that this cycle of violence has no winners, only victims. It’s hard to say at what fork in the road a different path is taken or why, but Zooman represents so many youths, then and now, who lack the empathy to see that they are part of the problem; empathy being something that they never learned to feel because they never had it given to them. Thirty-five years after it premiered, this play still has a relevant message, one of violence not being the answer to violence, and how “not wanting to get involved” only adds to the problem – and helps the wrong people. This isn’t a “black” issue, despite having an black cast and creative team; this is a human issue, and one that Past Productions Columbus should be commended for exploring in this strong production.

*** out of ****

Zooman and and the Sign continues through to November 7th in the Van Fleet Theatre within the Columbus Performing Arts Center at 549 Franklin Avenue, and more information can be found at http://pastproductionscolumbus.com/

The Outgoing Tide (Curtain Players – Galena, OH)

“Wouldn’t it be great if every time you really screwed up in life, every time you lost your temper, every time you did something really stupid, they’d let you do it over?” That’s the question one character asks in the Gallery Players production of The Outgoing Tide, a winning play concerning the decisions we make, our inevitable future, and how we can attempt to make up for past transgressions in the face of a bleak future. Did I mention that it’s also a comedy? Well, perhaps “dramedy” would be the right term, but by any categorization this is a play that needs to be seen.

The Outgoing Tide by Bruce Graham is about Gunner, an irascible old man suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. He still has his wits about him much of the time, but his lapses in memory and judgement are growing worse every day, putting a strain on his marriage to Peg. Their only child Jack comes to visit and finds himself having to choose between two very different ideas of how to handle the future; Peg wants to move them into an assisted living facility, and Gunner… Well, he has another solution in mind. As depressing as all of this sounds, it is actually quite a funny comedy, full of laugh-out-loud foibles, misunderstandings, and a generally upbeat examination of such dire subject matter.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack), Dave Morgan (Gunner), and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Dave Morgan is a gift from the community theatre Gods as Gunner; he’s grouchy, funny, spry – so natural and likable in a tricky part. Mr. Morgan is the key ingredient that makes this production work; no matter how strong the writing, a performance of his caliber is needed to make us laugh and care as much as we do. Mr. Morgan is delicately subtle when showing the effects of Alzheimer’s, superior even to Julianne Moore who won an Academy Award for it in Still Alice (2014). His bio states that he is returning to Curtain Players after a thirty-three-year hiatus; welcome back, Dave, and please don’t stop performing!

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Dave Morgan (Gunner) and Eve Nordyke (Peg)
 
Eve Nordyke is a good match as Gunner’s wife, Peg. Ms. Nordyke is at her best in the scenes in which she and Mr. Morgan act out moments from their youth, raising her pitch slightly and shrinking into a youthful bashfulness that is adorable and just right next to Mr. Morgan’s bravado. She reacts to what is being said to and around her extremely well, always appearing poised to pounce with little provocation.

Sean Brinker as their son, Jack, certainly knows his lines well; he sometimes speaks them in a way that spells out the punctuation, which is unfortunate. Mr. Brinker rarely appears comfortable on stage, and it’s a real shame as he gets to share it with such good cast mates but doesn’t seem capable of enjoying it. It’s not that he’s awful or wrecks the production; he is merely serviceable – a weaker link in an otherwise strong chain. 

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – (left to right) Sean Brinker (Jack) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 
Director James F. Petsche is to be commended for keeping the tone in check throughout. This isn’t a play that belabors the issues at hand, and Mr. Petsche doesn’t allow any moment to linger too long. Sound designer Eric Ewing also deserves recognition for his ambient sound effects, the volume of the music cues, and for how transparent everything sounds; every line can be heard clearly, and the sound of the motorboat chugging around the rear of the theatre is well handled.

 

Photo: Jerri Shafer – Eve Nordyke (Peg) and Dave Morgan (Gunner)
 

The Outgoing Tide takes a topic that could be full of maudlin tears and sloppy kisses and brings humor to it. It’s disarmingly funny and joyful, and that’s why it works so well. If one were to simply read the synopsis and see the key advertising art, it would seem like this is a cousin to On Golden Pond, but it really isn’t; it’s much better, actually. So much of life is funny in its absurdity, even death and illness, and plays like The Outgoing Tide help give us permission to find the humor in the situation to carry us through.

***/ out of ****

The Outgoing Tide continues through to November 8th at the Curtain Players Theatre located at 5691 Harlem Road in Galena (a little over half an hour outside Columbus), and more information can be found at http://www.curtainplayers.org/season/2015-2016/2_tide.php