Category Archives: Off Broadway
When money and wealth become more important than the lives of others, that is the time to write a play with powerful, sonorous music. Oh, not to uplift the CEOs who collect the millions like Don Blankenship of Massey owned Performance Coal Company. No. The play should uplift and memorialize the ones who die because of that CEO’s greed, selfishness and refusal to accept accountability for what many have called murder. Above all the play must repudiate the wealthCy’s Puritan assertions that money and power make right. They don’t. Not now, not ever.
Coal Country is a docu-drama with incredibly relevant themes for us today. The riveting, masterful work written by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen with original music by Steve Earle in a fabulous encore presentation by Audible and the Public Theater seems more impactful each time it is presented. We can never get enough of this exceptionally performed, shining work which runs at the Cherry Lane Theatre until 17 of April.
Though the worst of human nature asserts its primacy, poignant, moving stories like those in Coal Country are timeless in revealing that love despite tragedy culturally work us toward enlightenment. The voices of those who have been wrongfully snuffed out can resonate with meaning. This is especially so when fine artists like Blank, Jensen, Earle and superb performers effect those voices to channel the great moral imperative. What is good, what is true, what is valuable is never lost. It lives on.
The themes which the playwrights and songwriter ring out in Coal Country focus on the devastating catastrophe known as the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster of 2010, which cost 29 West Virginians their lives. Through family eye-witness accounts cobbled together in a tapestry of poetic beauty, vitality and grace, we learn the facts about the huge machine that operated over- capacity 24/7 on the long wall, sheering off the finest, most valuable coal so Blakenship could get his contract percentage of the mine’s earnings of $650,000 a day.
We learn through the accounts of union miners like Tommy (Michael Laurence), Gary (Thomas Kopache), and “Goose” (Joe Jung), how and why government inspectors never found the broken systems that allowed low oxygen levels to increase the build-up of methane gases and thick coal dust that caused the massive explosion. As the experienced miners relate how the broken sprinklers ineffectively doused the sparks created in machine operations that ignited the coal dust and methane behind the long wall, the final picture of egregious negligence and rapacious lust for money clarifies in the blood of innocents merged with the blood of family bonds.
Tommy, Laurence and Gary discuss how the power of the union to protect and respect the miners’ rights in the past has been subverted by the CEO and company, and government de-regulation. The owners who bought the mine hired a large percentage of non-union men, who didn’t dare “speak up,” to government inspectors and the FBI about extremely unsafe conditions in the mine. They feared reprisals. The question of payoffs arises and dead ends. We learn how those miners who did “say something” were warned and ignored. Miners were rendered voiceless against the inevitability of their deaths, because Blankenship was on a mission. No one was going to stop him.
As families identify bodies on blankets on the gravel, some collapse. Roosevelt (Ezra Knight) who identifies his father, who appears to be “asleep,” remains calm until his mother comes. They weep together. As others express outrage, the families of four missing men wait to hear whether or not their loved ones cheated death. Finally, the wait is over. None make it out. Tommy, who loses his son, his nephew and his father, waits to spill the news, overcome with pain.
Judy (Deidre Madigan), a doctor who lost her brother in the catastrophe rides a roller coaster of emotional expectation. First, she believes her brother died. Then she believes he found refuge. Then, all is finality. She describes that she feels she is an outsider because of her socioeconomic status. But emotion and love transcend economics; she is one of them. Her brother is dead and though the medical examiner tells her not to, she insists on seeing his remains. It is ironic that even her medical background does not prepare her for what the mine did to him. It is beyond calculation. In pieces, her brother is without human form.
One by one seven family members tell their story of a simple, satisfying life before the catastrophe in a community that mined for generations. Indeed, the mountain supported and nurtured them until it was bought over by Massey Energy and a new CEO came to town. We learn of the loving relationships between Mindi (Amelia Campbell) and Goose, and Patti (Mary Bacon) and Big Greg who dies leaving Little Greg traumatized by the loss of his dad and Patti when he is taken away from her. And interspersed with their stories, Steve Earle’s country ballads lyrical and poignant drive home the resonance of their love and remembrances of their dear ones. They live in his songs and echo in the actors’ mesmerizing performances.
Blank and Jensen (the husband-wife team who created The Exonerated), choose to present this dynamic piece as a flashback after Earle (playing guitar), opens with two songs that set the themes: “John Henry,” and Heaven Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.” Cleverly, the action begins in the courtroom at the end of Don Blakenship’s trial as Judge Berger (Kym Gomes), states they cannot read their “Victim Impact Statements.” What family could never speak in court, they relate to the court of public opinion (the audience who sees this play).
The flashback comes full circle back to the court, so the audience hears Blankenship only gets one year in jail and a fine of $250,000. Arrogantly, Blankenship uses that money to run Ads and create pamphlets in which he characterizes himself as the victim of government as a “political prisoner.” Nevertheless, in final, moving encomiums, each family member details how they remember their loved ones who live on in their hearts and in this production which has called. out to music the names of all who died in the UBB mine explosion.
With minimalist but trenchant symbolic Scenic Design (Richard Hoover), effective Lighting Design (David Lander), Sound Design (Darron L West) and Costume Design (Jessica Jahn), Coal Country is an amazing revival. It is profound and memorable in scope and power. Don’t miss it this time around. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.cherrylanetheatre.org/coal-country
Born into our parents’ culture and country, we learn how to communicate with them easily and take our language for granted without thinking about it. Delving deeper, language defines us, defines our thoughts, our ways. Our name in our native language has meaning from its history. It describes who we are and how we perceive ourselves. Many change their names as a result, knowing the change means a different self. Considering the import of the language we speak and our identification with it, how does learning a new language impact the way we understand ourselves? How might learning another language effect our being?
English, the insightful and powerful work by Sanaz Toossi, presents these questions and answers them poignantly through the voices of five individuals from Iran, who grapple with learning English. Starring an all-Iranian cast, the play enjoyed an extended run at The Atlantic Theater Company and most probably will be a favorite to be staged globally. Directed by Knud Adams, the play remains an original that unfortunately, couldn’t have had a longer run.
The setting is Karaj, Iran in 2008 before and during a confluence of events taking place between Iran, the United States and other English speaking countries. At the time immigration is fairly easy and Iranians on the move want to study abroad, do business and travel for extended stays to English-speaking countries to which their families emigrated.
Marjan (Marjan Neshat portrays the instructor), teaches for the TOEFL, the Test of English as a Foreign Language. The standardized, timed test measures the English language ability of non-native speakers, who wish to study in English-speaking universities. The test is accepted by more than 11,000 universities and other institutions in over 190 countries. The selective test guarantees that the students have an excellent working knowledge of the language to insure their success, not only in their classes, but also in navigating the culture and society.
As Neshat’s Marjan teaches, she realizes as we do that in every class there is a dynamic. Personalities emerge. Though she attempts to be objective, she finds herself aligning with students who demonstrate like-minded abilities and cognition. As her students reveal themselves in their response to her and the language, we find their observations humorous, their interactions fascinating. And the conflict arises when the struggling and often embarrassed students relate her to the onerous time they have with learning a completely different mode and thought process of communication. Neshat is authentic in her portrayal as Marjan, revealing the inner emotional struggle she has especially with Elham (the feisty, assertive Tala Ashe).
Humor evolves organically from the students’ perceptions, struggles and slippage into their native tongue Farsi in the first weeks of the class. An excellent teacher, Marjan attempts to gradually curb their fear and angst holding their feet to the fire by speaking English. Her skills are effective. We watch these individuals speak halting English. When they rip off sentences quickly (in English), that designates they speak Farsi.
At the outset Neshat’s Marjan reveals equanimity despite the competitive confrontations of Elham (the excellent Tala Ashe), the shy, halting behavior of Goli (the sweet Ava Lalezarzadeh), and the lackluster, removed Roya (the heartfelt Pooya Mohseni). Eventually, it becomes apparent that Omid (the attractive, confident Hadi Tabbal), the only male in the class, whose English is nearly unaccented and spot-on, is the one that Marjan connects with cognitively and perhaps, as Elham suggests, on a more personal level. Neshat and Tabbal effect an intriguing bond that flows with undercurrents between their characters.
We enjoy Marjan’s activities with the class which reinforce recognition of English nouns through games that emphasize speed. She keeps in mind the TOEFL is a timed test. However, eventually, the language begins to wear down the teacher and the students after Neshat’s Marjan encourages them to undertake the most difficult part of learning a language; they must only speak in English.
Thus, they must converse in sentences, and in effect begin to approach thinking as a native English speaker. All of them chafe at this and break into Farsi which Neshat’s Marjan “censures” by noting it on the chalkboard. The only one who doesn’t find this difficult is Tabbal’s Omid.
As Marjan attempts to have each of the students integrate themselves more personally with English, the conflicts explode. We discover Mohseni’s Roya only wants to learn because her son wants his mother to speak to her Canadian granddaughter in her native tongue which is not Farsi. This devastates Roya, who in a show and tell explains the two languages as she hears their differences. When she discusses her son’s email in Farsi and a voice mail he leaves in English, she uplifts the beauty of Farsi. She emphasizes the softness of her son’s intent in Farsi. Then she notes in his English voice mail, his speech. The sounds he makes are harsh, removed, cold. She asks the class, “Who is mom? I am Maman.” There, in one word the history of Persia is eradicated. The audience was completely silent during Mohseni’s plaintive discussion of loss; her son and granddaughter disappearing her culture before her eyes. This powerful moment is beautifully rendered by Mohseni and insightfully directed by Knud Adams.
The distinction Toossi suggests is profound and thought-provoking. Roya’s relationship to her son has been separated by the nature of the language and we see her heart is broken because of it. As he lives in Canada over the years, the separation will become impossible. The geographical difference matters little. It is his adoption of this new way of being in English. Even if she stays with him in Canada, she will be forced to learn this harsh, cold speech and ways of thinking to attempt to form a relationship with her granddaughter. But a culture, a way of being, a way of life and history has been disintegrated in the next generation. Mohseni’s Roya defines this as a death. As a result of her incredible performance, we believe and buy into Roya’s grief. Her granddaughter will never know the softness and poetic beauty of Farsi, the language of poets, of Omar Khayyam.
When Marjan has all of her students speak their English names, Roya rebels. It is her last stand. She never returns to class. We anticipate that the cost is too great for her to be reborn into a culture that reshapes her identity with an ugly name and being. As Roya leaves the class, Marjan’s response is invisible, absent. When a student asks what happened to Roya, Marjan dismisses the question. We are left to think that Roya failed to even desire to evolve, and Marjan failed Roya. Marjan, normally empathetic, moves on to “save” the others. However, Neshat’s Marjan too swiftly dismisses Roya. The undercurrent of her own feelings screams out with her silent dismissal, as harsh as the sounds of English to Roya’s intellect.
Toossi makes an important choice for our understanding of the complicated Marjan who puzzles us. Why didn’t she use Roya’s difficulty as a teachable moment? Why didn’t she encourage the others or explore for a few minutes a path to enhance their connection with her? We don’t know if she deeply empathizes and understands Roya’s rebellion or if she is annoyed she failed her. The question Toosi raises about Marjan’s character, she never answers because it is a developing characterization steeped in a confluence of emotions and feelings. Clearly Neshat’s Marjan is thrown by this event. Her becoming an English teacher has impacted her. There is gain, and there is loss and there is the price she pays for the trade-off.
Pooya Mohseni’s portrait of Roya is eloquently delivered, touching and emotionally driven. In every line we feel Roya’s pain in having to deal with this untenable situation. Mohseni knocks it out of the ballpark. Through her character most of all, we understand what it means to be a native speaker. We empathize with the loss of dignity, honor and person-hood Roya feels being forced into speaking English my Neshat’s Marjan. We get how her inability to communicate and make herself understood in the beauty of Farsi is anathema. Of course, she feels English is like putting on a cloak of stupidity, ugliness, ungainliness. If her granddaughter never learns Farsi (something Omid suggests her son should have his daughter do), she will never know who her grandmother really is. Roya’s loss, historical, cultural, personal is beyond calculation.
Toossi’s strongest moments present themes of loss of the old identity, yet the incomplete adoption in fluid grace with a new one. For each of the characters, we empathize that it is like being birthed again, torn from one’s natural lush habitat and plopped down in a desert left to die of thirst every moment, as they yearn to feel the cool balm of speaking in one’s mother tongue. English shines when the pronounced conflicts increase.
For example, Elham’s ambitious nature and brilliance force her to try to be the best in the class to achieve a high grade on the TOEFL in her pursuit to be a doctor. Ashe nails Elham’s frustration in achieving a high score on the MCAT and fearing a low score on the TOEFL. The TOEFL is a mountainous hurdle, so she hates English and by extension is oppressed by Neshat’s Marjan. Nevertheless, her competitive nature compels Elham to provoke Marjan in the stress and strain of being challenged. Speaking Farsi, yearning to be close, she manipulatively accuses Marjan of disliking her.
Ashe’s exceptional portrayal is revealed in her character’s suppressed anger. Thus, Elham proclaims to Ava Lalezarzadeh’s Goli that Marjan “loves” Omid. The sweet, shy Goli avers. But Elham insisits that because Marjan invites Omid to watch English films with her there is a “bond.” Indeed, in their moments together the Tabbal’s attractive Omid is suggestive and in his scenes with Neshat’s Marjan there is a connection. However, it is not as Ashe suggests; it is based in understanding English fluidly. Indeed, Marjan invites Elham and Goli, but they don’t want to spend the time with Marjan and Omid watching films like Room With a View. These conflicts are vital to the play’s forward movement. Perhaps they might have been established earlier.
Toossi’s uses her characterizations to organically develop her themes. These strengthen our engagement and pull at our empathetic heart strings. Thus, when Omid’s mystery is revealed or when Elham comes back to discuss how she performed on the TOEFL, we identify. Most of all Toossi has accomplished a milestone by indicating the importance for native speakers to stand in the shoes of immigrants who are even attempting to learn English. To learn a different language is a courageous, heroic feat, as Toossi suggests. It is a willingness to expand to another identity, another thought process. Ultimately, the nature of the language, its formation and structure changes the individual emotionally, mentally, indeed psychologically. This must not be underestimated. All of the actors’ portrayals vitally heighten Toossi’s themes and bring us closer to the importance of empathy. Ashe’s development of her character Elham is exceptional and we thrill for Elham as she shocks us with her success which was in her all along.
Toossi also reveals why there are those who don’t wish to learn English, even though they’ve lived in an English speaking country for years. These individuals remain in their own communities, never learn the language and never venture out to immerse themselves in new experiences. The risk of embarrassment is too great. They will not live in humiliation as their new persona, feel like an idiot and be quiet and uncommunicative, not understanding the too rapid speech bursts around them.
Finally, Toossi implies that by leaving behind the old self and adopting a new one, the individual wipes out the favored history of their beloved country, identity, relationships, being. Of course, if there is no direct imperative for business or education, they will not even try. Additionally, in the United States, their accent will be so thick it will be tantamount to a “war crime,” especially in the rural South and West as Ashe’s Elham ironically and humorously suggests.
This is one of the great lines in Toossi’s superb play. Understandably, non-native speakers do not wish to brave the looks of disgust, horror and puzzlement on the faces of native English speakers when they try to ask, “When will the waiting room open?” (Ws without an accent are particularly hard for non-native English speakers). Toossi covers a great deal of ground in her touching play which ends on a high note. We finally hear the actors speak in Farsi.
The production has ended. A few points about when I saw it the last day of its extended run.
Some of the actors couldn’t be heard, even by those sitting in the second row. Friends sitting there told me they barely heard certain thin-voiced actors. Also, sitting up close they became annoyed because the chairs blocked their view at times and they had to lean to the left or right. I was in row F and I thought it was just me when I missed some of the dialogue. I wasn’t the only one.
Problematic was the set construction, a lovely box set classroom which kept in the sound and echoed it. A wonderful idea for the set shouldn’t obstruct the audience’s enjoyment of the production with occluded sight lines and muffled sound. The idea of the classroom, revolving on a turntable platform is symbolic. But unless the audience hears each line of the actors and sees all areas of the stage without obstruction, the symbolism is impaired. This is too wonderful a work for it not to be technically spot-on.
Look for the marvelous Toossi’s work. She is a treasure and English is a vibrant, important and current play that begs to be performed again.
‘A Touch of the Poet’ The Irish Rep’s Brilliant Revival Exceeds Its Wonderful Online Performance. Eugene O’Neill’s ‘Poet’ is Amazing Glorious Theater!
From the moment Cornelius “Con” Melody (Robert Cuccioli) appears, shaking as he holds onto the stair railing of the beautifully wrought set by Charlie Corcoran, we are riveted. Indeed, we stay mesmerized throughout to the explosive conclusion of the Irish Repertory Theatre’s A Touch of the Poet by Eugene O’Neill. Compelled by Cuccioli’s smashing performance of Con, we are invested in this blowhard’s presentiments, pretenses and self-betrayal, as he unconsciously wars against his Irish heritage. Con is an iconic representative of the human condition in conflict between soul delusion and soul truth.
What will Con’s self-hatred render and will he take down wife Nora and daughter Sara (the inimitable pairing of Kate Forbes and Belle Aykroyd), in his great, internal classicist struggle? Will Con finally acknowledge and accept the beauty and enjoyment of being an Irishman with freedom and hope? Or will he continue to move toward insanity, encased in the sarcophagus image of a proper English gentleman? This is the identity he bravely fashioned as Major Cornelius Melody to destroy any smatch of Irish in himself. O’Neill’s answers in this truly great production of Poet are unequivocal, yet intriguing.
The conflict manifests in the repercussions of the drinking Con takes on with relish. So as Cuccioli’s Con attempts to gain his composure and stiffly make it over to a table in the dining room of the shabby inn he owns, the morning after a night of carousing, we recognize that this is the wreck of a man physically, emotionally, psychically. His shaking frame soothed by drink, which wife Nora (Kate Forbes), brings to him in servile slavishness, is the only companion he wants, for in its necessity as the weapon of destruction, it hastens Con’s demise. The beloved drink stirs up his bluster and former stature of greatness that he has lost forever as a failed Englishman and even bigger failure as comfortable landed gentry in 1828 Yankee country near Boston.
Director Ciarán O’Reilly and the cast heighten our full attention toward Con’s conflict with the romantic ideal of himself and the present reality that will eventually drive him to a mental asylum or a hellish reconciliation with truth. All of the character interactions drive toward this apotheosis. The actors are tuned beautifully in their portrayals to magnify the vitality of this revelation.
Nora (Forbes is authentic and likeable), is the handmaiden to Con’s process of dissolution. In order to fulfill her own glorified self-reflection and identity in loving this once admirable gentleman, she coddles him. Riding on the coattails of her exalted image of Con, she maintains beauty in her self-love. She loves him in his past glory, for after all, he chose to be with her. So Nora must abide in his every word and deed to maintain her loyal happiness, taking whatever few, kind crumbs he leaves for her under the table of their marriage. As a result, she would never chide or browbeat Con to quit the poison that is killing him.
The good whiskey he proudly provides for himself and friends like Jamie Cregan (the excellent Andy Murray), to help maintain the proper stature of a gentleman, steadies his mind. The whiskey also makes him feel in control of his schizoid personas. He clearly is not in control and never will be, unless he undergoes an exorcism. The audience perversely finds O’Neill’s duality of characterizations in Con and the others amusing if not surprising.
Cuccoli’s Con at vital moments rejects the painfully failed present by peering into his mirrored reflection to quote Lord Byron in one or the other of two mirrors positioned strategically on the mantel piece and a wall. There, fueled by the alcohol, he re-imagines the glorious military man of the Dragoons as he stokes his pride. Yet, with each digression into the past, he torments his inner soul for reveling in his failed delusion.
Likewise, each insult he lashes against Nora, who guilty agrees with him for being a low Irish woman, both lifts him and harms him. It is the image of the Major ridiculing Nora because of the stink of onions in her hair one moment, and in self-recrimination, apologizing moments after for his abusiveness. In his behavior is his attempt to recall and capture his once courageous, successful British martial identity, while rejecting the Irish humanity and decency in the deep composition of his inner self.
Always that true self comes through as he recognizes his cruelty. He behaves similarly with Sara, bellicose in one breath, apologetic in the next, fearful of her accusatory glance. In this production Con’s struggle, Nora’s love throughout and Sara’s resistance and war with herself and her father is incredibly realized and prodigiously memorable. O’Reilly and the cast have such an understanding of the characters and the arc of their development, it electrified the audience the night I saw it. We didn’t know whether to laugh (the humor originated organically as the character struggles intensified), or cry for the tragedy of it. So we did both.
Con’s self-recrimination and self-hatred is apparent to Nora whose love is miraculously bestowed. His self-loathing is inconsequential to Sara, who torments him with an Irish brogue, lacerating him about his heritage and hers, which the “Major” despises, yet is his salvation, for it grounds him in decency. Sara and Nora are the bane of his existence and likewise they are his redemption. If only he could embrace his heritage which the “scum” friends who populate his bar would appreciate. If only he could destroy the ghost of the man he once was, Major Cornelius Melody, who had a valiant and philandering past, serving under the eventually exalted Duke of Wellington.
Through the discussions of Jamie Cregan with Mick Maloy (James Russell), we learn that the “Major identity” caused Con to be thrown out of the British military and forced him to avoid disgrace by settling in America with Nora and Sara. We see it causes his decline into alcoholism, destroys his resolve and purpose in life, and dissipates him mentally. It is the image of pretension that caused the bad judgment to be swindled by the Yankee liar who sold him the unproductive Inn. Sadly, that image is the force encouraging the insulting, emotional monster that abuses his wife and daughter. And it is a negative example for Sara who treats him as a blowhard, tyrant fool to vengefully ridicule and excoriate about his class chauvinism, preening airs and economic excesses (he keeps a mare to look grand while riding). It is the Major’s persona which brings them to the brink of poverty.
The turning point that pushes Con over the edge comes in the form of a woman he believes he can steal a kiss from, Deborah Hartford, the same woman whose intentions are against Sara and her son Simon Hartford falling in love. Without considering who this visiting woman might be, Con assumes the Major’s pretenses and we see first hand how Con “operates” with the ladies. His romanticism awkwardly emerges, left over from his philandering days with women who fell like dominoes under his charms. He is forward with Hartford who visits to survey the disaster her son Simon has befallen, under the spell of Sara’s charms, behavior not unlike Con’s. The scene is both comical and foreboding. From this point on, the events move with increasing risk to the climactic, fireworks of the ending.
As Deborah Hartford, Mary McCann pulls out all the stops in a performance which is grandly comical and real, with moment to moment specificity and detail. When Con attempts to thrust his kiss upon her, there were gasps from the audience because she is a prim Yankee woman of the upper classes who would find Con’s behavior low class and demeaning. That he “misses” the signs of who she is further proves his bad judgment. Sara is appalled and Nora, not jealous, makes excuses for him satisfying herself. The scene is beautifully handled by the actors with pauses and pacing to maximum effect.
McCann’s interaction with Aykroyd’s Sara is especially ironic. Deborah Hartford’s speech about the Hartford family male ideals of freedom and lazy liberty that forced the Hartford women to embrace their husbands’ notions by taking up the slave trade is hysterical. As she mildly ridicules Simon’s dreams to be a poet and write a book about freedom from oppressive, nullifying social values, she warns Sara against him. It is humorous that Sara doesn’t understand what she implies. Obviously, Deborah Hartford suspects Sara is a gold digger so she is laying tracks to run her own train over any match Sara and her son would attempt to make. After discovering the economically challenged, demeaned Melody family, Hartford informs her husband who sends in his man to settle with the Melodys.
Together McCann and Aykroyd provide the dynamic that sets up the disastrous events to follow. Clearly, Sara is more determined than ever to marry Simon and as the night progresses, she seals their love relationship with Nora’s blessing, until Nora understands that her daughter walks in her own footsteps in the same direction that she went with Con. Unlike Nora, however, Sara is not ashamed of her actions.
O’Neill’s superb play explores Con’s past and its arc to the present, revealing a dissipated character at the end of his rope. Wallowing in the Major’s ghostly image, Con vows to answer Mr. Hartford’s insult of sending Nicholas Gadsby (John C. Vennema looks and acts every inch the part), to buy off Sara’s love for Simon and prevent their marriage. After having his friends throw out the loudly protesting Gadsby, Con and Jamie Cregan go to the Hartfords to uphold the Major’s honor in a duel. Nora waits and fears for him and in a touching scene when Sara and Nora share their intimacies of love, Nora explains that her love brings her self-love and self-affirmation. Sara agrees with her mother over what she has found with Simon. The actors are marvelous in this intimate, revelatory scene.
The last fifteen minutes of the production represent acting highpoints by Cuccioli, Forbes, Aykroyd and Murray. When Con returns alive but beaten and vanquished, we acknowledge the Major’s identity smashed, as Con sardonically laughs at himself, a finality. With the Major’s death comes the hope of a renewal. Finally, Con shows an appreciation of his Irish heritage as he kisses Nora, a redemptive, affirming action.
O’Neill satisfies in this marvelous production. The playwright’s ironic twists and Con’s ultimate affirmation of the foundations of his soul is as uplifting as it is cathartic and beautiful. Nora’s love for Con has finally blossomed with the expiation of the Irishman. It is Sara who must adjust to this new reality to redefine her relationship with her father and reevaluate her expectation of their lives together. The road she has chosen, like her mother’s, is hard and treacherous with only her estimation of love to propel her onward.
From Con’s entrance to the conclusion of Irish Repertory Theatre’s shining revival of Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, presented online during the pandemic and now live in its mesmerizing glory, we commit to these characters’ fall and rise. Ciarán O’Reilly has shepherded the sterling actors to inhabit the characters’ passion with breathtaking moment, made all the more compelling live with audience response and feeling. The production was superbly wrought on film in October of 2020. See my review https://caroleditosti.com/2020/10/30/a-touch-of-the-poet-the-irish-repertory-theatres-superb-revival-of-eugene-oneills-revelation-of-class-in-america/
Now, in its peak form, it is award worthy. Clearly, this O’Neill version is incomparable, and O’Reilly and the actors have exceeded expectations of this play which has been described as not one of O’Neill’s best. However, the production turns that description on its head. If you enjoy O’Neill and especially if you aren’t a fan of this most American and profound of playwrights, you must see the Irish Rep presentation. It is not only accessible, vibrant and engaging, it deftly explores the playwright’s acute themes and conflicts. Indeed, in Poet we see that 1)classism creates personal trauma; 2)disassociation from one’s true identity fosters the incapacity to maintain economic well being. And in one of the themes O’Neill revisits in his all of his works, we recognize the inner soul struggles that manifest in self-recrimination which must be confronted and resolved.
Kudos to the creative team for their superb efforts: Charlie Corcoran (scenic design), Alejo Vietti & Gail Baldoni (costume design), Michael Gottlieb (lighting design), M. Florian Staab (sound design), Ryan Rumery (original music), Brandy Hoang Collier (properties), Robert-Charles Vallance (hair & wig design).
For tickets and times to the Irish Repertory Company’s A Touch of the Poet, go to their website: https://irishrep.org/show/2021-2022-season/a-touch-of-the-poet-3/
D.H. Lawrence is rarely known for his plays. However, British critics have noted that he was a master playwright, and if discovered as such earlier in his life, he would have been appreciated for his dramas, however maverick and forward-thinking. One such incredibly rich play is being presented by the always excellent Mint Theater Company, who enjoys bringing to life rare jewels in drama that have often been overlooked. The Daughter-in-Law is one of these gems.
Directed by Martin Platt The Daughter in Law presents an amazing portrait of an independent woman, Minnie (Amy Blackman), a former governess married to a collier (coal miner), Luther Gascoyne (Tom Coiner). The couple live in a mining town near his mother’s (Mrs.Gascoyne-Sandra Shipley) home where his brother Joe (Ciaran Bowling), also a collier, works with him in East Midlands England.
The setting is autobiographical and akin to where D.H. Lawrence’s father worked and where he and his siblings lived with their mother (reminiscent of Minnie), who had cultural aspirations for Lawrence, and who inspired him in his studies. Lawrence’s play evolves into conflicts among the characters. These are rich in thematic evolution that comes to some resolution by the end of the play after the colliers riot against scab workers during a strike. Interestingly, the themes involve gender roles, class, economic inequity and familial love. Also, Freudian tropes between mothers and sons, an issue that Lawrence often investigated, receives a hearing in this realistic and beautifully acted production that Platt has tautly directed, so it remains provocatively, emotionally, tense throughout.
To a fault, the actors have been schooled in the Midlands accent which provides realism and creates the audiences’ attentive stir to understand all that the characters communicate. At times, this takes getting used to. However, the actors portray the characters’ emotional feeling sincerely and authentically, so that one understands, even though one may not be able to translate word for word what the characters say.
Nevertheless, when Joe (the vibrant Ciaran Bowling), enters sporting an arm in a sling and his mom (the dynamic and authentic Sandra Shipley), fusses over him with his dinner and probes what happened with receiving a disability check, we understand their close relationship, and we also understand that mother and son mutually care for each other, living under the same roof, watching out for each other, while other family have gone on to make their own lives.
The hard conditions of the mines remind us of the corporate structure which Lawrence reveals has changed little over one hundred years later. The owners receive all the benefits, and the workers are given low wages and are subcontracted out to keep them hungry and off-balance, so they are unsure of where they stand in the company’s graces. Joe and his brother, like their father before them, were at the mercy of the owners; and their father died as a result of an accident we find out later in the play. This undercurrent of workers vs. owners is the driving undercurrent and reveals that the misery of need and want is what impacts the families who live and depend on coal mining for their survival.
During lively dinner conversation, Joe tells his mother that his attempt to receive a check for his broken arm has been rejected. His manager tells his version of “the acceptable truth” of what happened to Joe, so that it is Joe’s fault that he was injured, because he was “fooling around.” It was not that he was injured on the job because of some dereliction of another worker or the mine. Lawrence strikes at the inequality of the haves and have nots and the managers who make sure to protect their employers. Thus, we feel for Joe and his mother, who are not destitute, but who struggle economically. If any stress comes to either of them, they are a few steps away from the equivalent of the poorhouse. Such is their economic and class level.
Into the background of this economic insecurity and potential working class impoverishment comes Mrs. Purdy (the convincing and excellent Polly McKie), a neighbor who brings disturbing news. Her daughter, who she describes as rather a simple girl, is pregnant. And after avoiding the direct truth until Mrs. Gascoyne drags it out of her, Mrs. Purdy lays the blame at the feet of Luther, who married Minnie seven weeks before. Mrs. Gascoyne pushes Mrs. Purdy cleverly off on Luther and Minnie, especially Minnie since she has brought some money into the marriage and can afford to pay Mrs. Purdy and her daughter off for their silence and for Bertha’s upkeep with the baby. This suggestion is made after Joe and Mrs. Purdy verify that Luther was seeing Bertha Purdy, something that Mrs. Gascoyne didn’t realize because Luther kept it under the radar and wasn’t serious with her.
Assurances are made to Mrs. Purdy that she must see Luther and Minnie at their house, since Minnie has received an inheritance that Mrs. Gascoyne insists should be used to pay off Mrs. Purdy. This malevolent and resentful suggestion is disputed by Joe whose empathy for his brother and Minnie is greater than his mother’s. As Mrs. Gascoyne discusses Luther’s marriage to Minnie in demeaning terms, it is obvious that she resents the “high and mighty” Minnie ending up with her son. She tells Mrs. Purdy that it’s because he is the only one she could get.
At this point not meeting Minnie, we wonder who this snotty woman is and side with Mrs. Gascoyne because we have gotten to know this nurturing, motherly type who obviously cares about her children. Based on Lawrence’s brilliant dialogue characterizing Minnie through the eyes of Mrs. Gascoyne, we believe that this snobby woman who thinks she’s “better” than the colliers and their families is pretentious. Also, we believe that she is so desperate, she doesn’t love Luther, but she just wants not to be an old maid.
Interestingly, Lawrence allows this portrait of Minnie to remain, until we see her relationship with the two brothers unfold. Gradually, her characterization is revealed and her strength, power, indomitable wisdom and love for Luther becomes apparent but with twists and turns, ups and downs by the the end of the play. But first, she must stand up and upend her mother-in-law’s presumptive discriminatory attitude against her, and then wait for the right moment to forgive her so that the two of them become closer.
Platt’s direction in keeping us wondering how Minnie will react when she discovers Luther has a child on the way is subtle and yet eventful, as Lawrence provides surprises and unusual events which keep us enthralled. Mrs. Purdy tells Luther about the child, but Joe manages to drive Minnie out of the house so that she leaves before Mrs. Purdy confronts her with the “truth.”
In an ironic twist it is Luther, who returns much later drunk, guilty and ready to be rejected. He picks a terrible fight with Minnie, then in humiliation covered over with bravado, he reveals that he has gotten Bertha with child. Interestingly, Minnie remains calm and collected, non judgmental and rational, presenting the idea that the child may not be Luther’s, but another man’s. Nevertheless, Luther becomes churlish and obnoxious, which prompts her to call him out for his meanness, especially when he suggests that Bertha was nicer to him than Minnie.
The actors do an exceptional job in raising the stakes and increasing the argument and tension between Minnie and Luther, so that we don’t know whether or not they will break up, Minnie will leave, whether Luther will have to return to his mother or both of them will end up bloodied and bruised as they come to blows. In Lawrence’s characterizations of Minnie and Luther, their relationship becomes explosive and we aren’t sure whether it’s because of class differences, economic differences (she came from a bit more money than he and he may resent it) gender role assumptions (Minnie has worked for herself and made her own money) or something else. Interestingly, we don’t consider that they may love one another, feel hurt and pain that they might lose each other, or are emotionally trying to settle out their own feelings.
The actors are just exceptional in revealing this marvelous nuance and the director has shepherded them so that we are off balance in attempting to figure out how they really feel about each other. One of the high points of the play comes when Minnie confronts her mother-in-law and indicates that she has not allowed either of her sons to become men. Minnie points out that she has babied them so that they remain shells and are forced to rely on her emotionally and psychically which has destroyed them and made them weak. Interestingly, Joe agrees with Minnie. And he indicates this situation emotionally has debilitated him and at times has left him suicidal. Ciaran Bowling, Sandra Shipley and Amy Blackman are wonderful in this confrontation scene.
Amy Blackman as Minnie gives an amazing and powerful performance. She is stalwart and strong as she stands up to Sandra Shipley’s mother-in-law who manages to be infuriating and yet very human and poignant as a woman who is needy and relies on the ties amongst her and her sons. Tom Coiner as Luther is frightening and brutal as well as weak and sheep-like when he finally admits his love and dependence on Minnie.
Lawrence concludes the play surprisingly by revealing what has been at stake all along. It is a complicated and intricate conundrum that he presents and then the revelation clearly indicates that there was no mystery. This is how a couple is settling into themselves and separating from every other family member to cling to each other as they define themselves in the most important relationship of their lives.
This wonderful production should be seen for many reasons, principally because D.H. Lawrence has written a great play with nuanced characters in striking relationships that are unfamiliar to us that the Mint Theater Company has presented in this superb revival. The intricate details of setting, the props, the coal stove that is the hearth, the set design, down to the food and plates that show Minnie’s aspirations to being middle class, manifest a reality that makes us identify with these individuals. Kudos to the tremendous effort on the part of Bill Clarke (sets), Holly Poe Durbin (costumes), Joshua Larrinaga-Yocom (props), Jeff Nellis (lights), Original Music & Sound (Lindsay Jones).
The Daughter-in-Law comes in at two and one-half hours and is at New York City Center, Stage II. For tickets and times go to their website: https://www.nycitycenter.org/pdps/2021-2022/the-daughter-in-law/
Shifting in flashback between (2016-2017) and (1944-1946) set in two different Parisian apartments, Prayer for the French Republic (currently at Manhattan Theatre Club) by Joshua Harmon (Bad Jews), directed by David Cromer (The Band’s Visit), focuses on a Jewish family’s concerns about identity, safety and security in a country that they’ve called home for five generations. The backdrop of their apprehensions then and now is an uncertain world where humanity’s fears and needs turn increasingly predatorial. Capitalizing on such fears, political actors mine the unbalanced, raw emotions of deranged citizens, to create scapegoats which help grow their power and popularity. Whether left or right politically, oftentimes the scapegoats are religiously or ethnically engineered.
Such was the case in France during Hitler’s fascist occupation and the Vichy government’s cooperation with the roundup of French Jews that were murdered or sent off to concentration camps. Such is the case in France in recent years where attacks against Jewish citizens have multiplied, stirred up by opportunistic right-wing fascistic politicos ravenous for power.
As an overseer, Patrick Salomon (Richard Topol), connects the ancestral ghosts from the past, his great grand parents, Irma and Adolph Salomon, grandfather Lucien and his father Pierre, still living, as a bridge from the past to the present. In the present are Patrick, his sister Marcelle Salomon Benhamon, husband Charles and their adult children, Daniel and Elodie. The play is Patrick’s meditation on five generations of family. Patrick redefines what being a Jew in France means, as he narrates the saga of their Parisian Jewish identity and magnifies it in light of the age-old conundrum Jews historically confront throughout the ages. To survive do they assimilate or do they risk the danger of standing apart as they embrace their religious beliefs?
As the play progresses, these questions expand and complicate against the current global crises (climate, socio-political, economic). What do Jews do in response to severe persecution? Do they embrace their identity, suffer and die valiantly resisting? In the name of living do they become invisible, marry out of their religion to avoid the turmoil, danger and abuse that comes with the trajectory of uncertain social unrest that Jews inevitably find themselves in the midst of? Do they emigrate to “certain” safety?
Interestingly, before the last generation of the Salomon family makes any final decisions, they confront their father Pierre and present him with their conundrum. Would he go with them, for example to a safer place with other Jews in Israel? Who better than their father, a survivor of the atrocities of Auschwitz, can ,advise them about their future? Indeed, he made his decision years ago, married a Christian woman and didn’t keep up Jewish tradition, intentionally. He remained safely in Paris raising Marcelle and Patrick without keeping ancient Jewish traditions. And until Marcelle married an Algerian Jewish emigre, they didn’t keep them either.
Patrick (the superb Richard, Topol whose easy, relaxed persona is confidently relatable and empathetic), introduces the Salomon family to the audience and discusses their business operating a store where they attempt to sell beautiful pianos that are no longer viable in modern society. Patrick brings us into 2016 to view his closest relatives, sister Marcelle (Betsy Aidem), brother-in-law, Charles (Jeff Seymour), their bi-polar daughter Elodie (Francis Benhamou), and son Daniel (Yair Ben-Dor). The cross-section of their lives begins as Marcelle (Betsy Aidem in a fine, layered performance), becomes acquainted with her guest, Molly (the clear-eyed, authentic Molly Ranson), a non-practicing Jewish, distant cousin from NYC.
Their humorous exchange ends when Daniel comes in bleeding and an uproar begins in the household. He has been attacked in a hate crime where the young men who assaulted him yell out epithets because he has obviously distinguished his religious identity with a kippah. The arguments ensue and we discover that neither Marcelle nor Charles make an obvious show of their Judaism and that Daniel is the only Orthodox one in the family. Molly watches the scene unfold and learns as we do about family dynamics. Daniel recently became Orthodox. He doesn’t even want to go to the police to identify his beating as a hate crime. Though Marcelle insists, Daniel makes excuses that he didn’t see his attackers and the police won’t do anything about it. All land on the fact that it will only exacerbate matters in the society and spread more fear. The discussion is closed when Daniel insists Marcelle light Shabbat candles.
The scene deftly shits to the past, as we note that ancestry (the ghosts of time past), runs concurrently and influences the Salomons in the present. The spirits of their forebears come to life, and we watch the characters in their small Parisian apartment in 1944, having a conversation about their children and other family who escaped France rather than stay, which other family did. As Irma (Nancy Robinette), and Adolphe (Kenneth Tigar), wait safely in their apartment, away from the horrific persecution of Jews throughout the Third Reich occupied countries, of which France is one, they pray that Lucien and Young Pierre are safe in the mountains. This is what Adolphe encourages Irma to believe. As they pray that Lucien and Pierre will come home to their apartment in Paris, hope sustains them.
Patrick connects present and past during these moments. He ruminates about what his great grandparents, grandparents and father went through, touching upon the conversations they may have had, the rationing they went through. Furthermore, he reveals the family’s penchant for argument and debate before decisions are made. Adolphe humorously suggests that at the reunion when family is together, after ten minutes of peace there will be arguing and fighting and crying. We marvel that Irma and Adolphe can sit there and imagine what it will be like after liberation. We discover later that most of the family who didn’t escape to Cuba or elsewhere died. Adolphe’s fantasy is a manifestation of hope to uplift Irma. Their safety in Paris affords them this luxury of hope; meanwhile, Jews died in the millions.
How are they alive? Patrick relates that the superintendent of the building didn’t give Adolphe and Irma up to the Gestapo during a roundup. Thus, both escaped in that rarest of occasions; they were protected by other French people. However, at this point, they don’t know the fate of their son Lucien (Ari Brand) and their grandson Pierre (Peyton Lusk) who may have fallen into the hands of the Nazis and ended up gassed in a concentration camp. But Adolphe and Irma live in faith securely, waiting their return.
In the segue back to the present Molly and Daniel form an attachment. Daniel explains why he has become Orthodox when the family never was. He discusses the attacks at the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and the killing of four Jews at the Kosher Supermarket in Paris as proof that the hate crimes against Jews are increasing. On a hopeful note, he tells Molly that the peace marches against the violent attacks were massive and Prime Minister Manuel Valls stood with the Jews against Benjamin Netanyahu, who told them to leave France and come to Israel. Valls encouraged belief in the French Republic stating, “If 100,000 Jews left, there would be no more France; the Republic of France would be a failure. Daniel points out that Jews left, but only a tiny fraction; the rest stayed. He affirms that always it is a matter of choice. Jews stay in France because they love their nation and have faith in the French people.
It is this concept of choice that carries through the rest of the play in the decision whether to escape persecution and hate crimes or stay and fight with courage and resistance. But slowly, this family because of the past losses, attenuates their faith in the French Republic.
First, it is Charles who rebels against staying in France after we hear the Prayer for the French Republic spoken in a voice over in French and English when Charles and Daniel go to the synagogue. The Jews loyally support the French Republic, though some, like Charles, feel it is a waste of time. As father and son walk home, Charles notices the stares of disdain and anger at Daniel’s assertion of his religion. Charles insists, “I can’t take it any more.” Once again the family is up in arms presenting arguments. Marcelle refuses to leave, decrying the beauty of their life in France. Fed up Charles wants to go to Israel. He remembers the persecution he experienced in Algeria where everyone got along when he was a child, but later socio-political forces disrupted the social fabric. Indeed, he has no allegiance to France. He doesn’t have the history, as Patrick puts it, that Jews have been in France for over 1000 years and have made a way for themselves there.
The discussion and wrangling back and forth between Aidem’s Marcelle and Jeff Seymour’s Charles is powerful and strident. We are riveted by the danger in Charles’ tone, of hidden subtext that is palpable and his fervor to believe there is safety in Israel, though that isn’t necessarily a rational conclusion because of the terrorism there as well.
The argument carries over when Molly and Elodie go to a Dive Bar. Francis Benhamou’s Elodie rant against Molly Ranson’s Molly is humorous and as powerfully strident as Charles’ argument with Marcelle. Elodie gives forth illustrating Molly’s hypocrisy when she argues against Israel’s Palestinian settlements. Elodie’s point drives deeper to human nature. There are the power-hungry and the occupiers; how does one resist not becoming power-hungry as a matter of security? Molly’s criticism belies historic U.S. colonialization and oppression of everyone but white males. Elodie indicates that finger pointing is useless, though eventually as Molly does convincingly, both manage to reach common ground on the human level. It is over Daniel who Elodie explains became Orthodox because of a girl. Revelation of his vulnerability opens the door to Molly’s and Daniel’s relationship. It also opens the door to Marcelle’s fury because she believes that Molly has taken advantage of her son’s vulnerability.
Nothing is resolved even after Charles and Daniel return from a trip to Israel to look at living arrangements and social culture. Charles gives in; he affirms wherever Marcelle is, he will stay with her and Daniel proclaims that he didn’t want to go to Israel, but just accompanied his distraught father. The playwright indicates the confusion and the stress that accompanies the hassle of confronting danger in one’s daily life as this family feels they are under siege since Daniel paraded his Jewishness. But it is understandable because the family has a history of loss and death at the hands of French fascism which fascists like Marine le Pen and her political group don’t readily disavow.
As the scene shifts to the past, Lucien and Young Pierre return from the camps bringing the horrific information that family was lost. Lucien is overcome in the telling of it. Ari Brand’s performance is appropriately drained, inwardly devastated but holding it together as best he can. It is Young Pierre who eventually expresses how his father’s hope saved him. Peyton Lusk gives an incredible portrayal of the PTSD of a young person returning from an unspeakable experience. But as Lusk explains how he survived, once again comes the affirmation that hope is how people survived the persecution, attacks and killing with community and family helping family. For Lucien always told Young Pierre that they would make it.
But it is in the final act when the dam bursts with a traumatic episode for Marcelle, who by degrees has given up on her beloved Paris. It occurs at the symbolic Passover Seder, a remembrance of when God wrought miracles to help the Israelites escape slavery in Egypt. At the celebration when they arrive at the “opening of the door to let the angel in,” Marcelle becomes hysterical like Charles did weeks before. She, too, has a “can’t take it any more” moment and refuses to open the door, terrorized that a Marine le Pen engineered terrorist will enter and kill them. The scene is shocking. Betsy Aidem’s performance is riveting as are the other actors. Harmon establishes centuries old horror of death at the hands of haters. Though the idea seems ridiculous, recently a woman was burned alive in her apartment in Paris.
That Harmon has conjoined Marcelle’s terror with the symbolic traditional night commemorating their escape from persecution and oppression is an apotheosis. In an irony of twisted emotion, Marcelle gives in to the terrorists who want Jews gone from “their” country, the most grievous insult of all. It is an incredible message because Marcelle’s fear destroys her ability to believe in God’s protection a basic fact of her religion. She believes it if she flees, like the Jews of ancient history. The hatred of others intellectually and representationally in various select acts of violence has overwhelmed Marcelle’s ability to feel secure in her own religion, her own apartment, her own country, her own identity. She must leave.
Of course it is a sardonic fact that her family’s escape will be to one the most dangerous countries on the planet. Of course Patrick raises the issue about the security question. Indeed, physical security must have as its precursor intellectual and philosophical security in the Golden Rule of “Do unto others” democratic values, an ideal that France attempts to follow and does with exceptions, better than other countries.
Harmon’s play is filled with thesis/antithesis arguments and this is a family that generationally loves a worthy argument with well supported logic and details. Patrick takes the position that the Republic of France will stand by its ideals and that there is nowhere safe globally, moment to moment; not Israel, not the United States, not Europe, the Middle East, Asia, etc. Human hearts are not safe. To counter his sister he correctly asserts that the fascistic government of Marine Le Pen will be voted down and the Republic will persist. Harmon’s point is well taken. There are those across the globe who value equanimity in greater numbers than those whose megalomania and craven hate seeks the death of others for power. However, his commentary falls on deaf hears; Marcelle has made up her mind to go to Israel where their Jewish identity may be expressed freely with little fear of reprisal by crazies. For her France has nullified the Jew.
Whether she will feel safe in Israel relies on hope and sacrifice. In Israel they have to start all over again. They will have sacrificed their careers, friends, culture, language, everything for the hope of a safety and security that is never guaranteed. If they are on a bus that terrorists decide to blow up in Tel Aviv, there is no way to stop that. But Marcelle is convinced, turning 180 degrees from her position at the play’s beginning. Fear possesses her soul and she makes decisions based on it.
In the final segment of the play the argument takes further flight with elderly father Pierre (Pierre Epstein is eloquent in this last speech to the family.) If they leave, it is their choice, but he will not go with them. Having the freedom to choose and not be compelled is vital. Ironically, by giving into their fear, they have compelled themselves. Pierre who has seen the worst of the camps and survived it, knows the difference of experiencing the worst. His children and grandchildren have not and they don’t want to. That is why Marcelle compels them to leave, though such an event happening again is a probability off the charts. But no one dares speak that to her, not even her own brother.
The performances are sterling and sensitive, at times funny, and always compelling. The canny direction by Cromer to “get it all down” and thrill the audience with ideas and concepts is just great. I particularly enjoyed the Set Design by Takeshi Kata that designated the differences between present and past efficiently and seamlessly. The Lighting Design by Amith Chandrashaker provided the ephemeral, soft, wistful tone of the past and stark contrast with bright light that magnifies the present. Kudos to the other creatives, Sound Design by Lee Kinney & Daniel Kluger, Original Music by Daniel Kluger.
Prayer for the French Republic is revelatory and insightful in questioning our arrogance to believe we, who are transient beings on this planet, have an identity and home, knowing mortality comes to all of us physically. He also twits our assumptions about safety and security, the difference between life’s enjoyments and living an existence permeated by psychological fear. Above all he designates in a Republic, there is the right to choose one’s destiny, free from personal harm because if applied, the rule of law secures it. But if it is not exercised, then what? Harmon asks the questions through lives, relationships and situations that embody them in seeing the Salomon family live past and present. If one delves deeply enough and contemplates like Topol’s Patrick does, one sees the answers can only be individual and personal. No one can answer for someone else.
This is a wonderful play dramatically rendered. It should be seen, especially if you enjoy thought-provoking plays that move swiftly on emotional power. For tickets and times go to their website https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/prayer-for-the-french-republic/
Jocelyn Bioh (School Girls; or, The African Mean Girls Play) and director Saheem Ali her frequent collaborator (Merry Wives of Windsor) once again work comedic magic in Nollywood Dreams, a farce that twits burgeoning Nigerian Cinema in the 1990s, yet makes a statement about dreaming, and dreamers influenced by countries with jaded, hypocritical values.
The production makes the most of the Newman Mills Theater’s intimacy with heightened, particular and detailed scenic design by Arnulfo Maldonado that cleverly enhances Bioh’s characters, set changes, story arc and thematic focus. Dede Ayite’s appealing and over-the top costume design and Nikiya Mathis’ hair and wig design encourage the actors to pull out all the stops. These production elements especially enhance the actors’ characterizations and encourage their freedom to humorously tear up Bioh’s witty celebrity inferences with grace and humor that moves the production along at a well-paced clip.
If Bioh’s characterizations are superb, even greater is the cast that inhabits the recognizable celebrity types and their acolytes with definition, depth and unique authenticity. The humor is organic and situational, and part of the laugh riot comes at witnessing how other countries, i.e. Nigeria, emulate some of the worst of American, to wit “Hollywood” culture through a lens brightly. Thus, Bioh’s farce not only humorously underscores and gently ridicules Nollywood cinema, but it also satirically rocks the most shallow and nauseating American entertainment transference, save the send up of Oprah in the TV hostess Adenikeh by the fabulous Abena. Interestingly, Nollywood cinema has grown by leaps and bounds to be one of the most productive engines globally.
The plot is as simplistic as the Hollywood pie that actors refuse to eat for fear of going over their 18 BMI. Ayamma Okafor (the lovely Sandra Okuboyejo) dreams of being an actress, as she and her older sister Dede (the jealous, know-it-all humorously portrayed by Nana Mensah) run their parents’ travel agency. They intend to move up in the world beyond their middle class status, of course, influenced by the US and other capitalist countries. The siblings are well drawn with the older Dede continually chiding Ayamma, dumping the work on her and generally being a scutch. Then events break for the sweet but down-to-earth Ayamma and she becomes Dede’s rival for the man in their dreams (for different reasons) the gorgeous star Wale (the sweet and adorable Ade Otukoya).
In all the gossip magazines that Dede reads, confirmed by the guests on Adenikeh’s TV show, we learn the backstory and the stakes for the characters. The gobsmacking Wale is slated to be in the next film from director and all-around big producer who learned the ropes in America, Gbenga Ezie (Charlie Hudson, III has the energetic, compromised Hollywood director/schmoozer down perfectly). However, to spur interest, cleverly, the big man announces a nationwide open audition for the part of the female lead in his next film, “The Comfort Zone” (how Bioh introduces the title and the name of the lead character is hysterical). For Ayamma, this is the opportunity she has dreamed about, to be able to raise herself up into stardom as an actress. Meanwhile, Dede will just settle as second best to marry Wale.
Bioh ratchets up the sibling rivalry when Ayamma asserts herself and visits Gbenga’s offices to get the part and play against Wale to prove she is a great actress and can make something of herself. In Gbenga’s office, we see the allure of possible future starlet vs. potentially predatory director. Enjoying the visit of the lovely Ayamma, an ingenue of innocence, we note that Gbenga never misses an opportunity with the ladies. Gbenga allows her to read with the actress and his former partner Fayola (the Nollywood “Hallie Berry with the Tina Turner legs”). The “fix is in.” He will most likely cast Fayola in the part to prevent her spilling the dirt on him which would put him in jail.
Emana Rachelle portrays the wild and dramatic Fayola with vibrance, humor and sheer joy. Ayite and Mathis’ costumes, shoes, wigs give even more umph and fabulousness to Emana’s Fayola, whose gestures and movements, like Abena’s, celebrate those they imitate and gently ridicule sub rosa. The women are in conflict against each other for the part of Comfort; the sisters are in conflict for Wale, and Adenikeh wants in and will use her leverage in whatever way possible to be with Wale and Gbenga. Interestingly, Hudson III’s king manipulator Gbenga keeps them all allured. Meanwhile, Ade’s Wale, with quiet confidence oozing sensitivity, the honey which every woman loves, sits back and is himself.
The actors are having a blast as is the audience. And we even get to see a clip of The Comfort Zone which is a LOL overacting extravaganza at its best. Special kudos to David Weiner’s and Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design; Palmer Hefferan’s sound design; Alex Basco Koch’s projection design. It’s a shame that the run of Nollywood Dreams isn’t longer. It’s a wonderful romp with depth, for it exposes the broken promises and seductions which are the dark side of the predatory entertainment industry. Thanks to the creative team, Saheem Ali-director, Bioh and especially the ensemble who are seminal performers. It is clear they listen to each other to remain “in-the-moment” authentic. All make this production memorable.
To see Nollywood Dreams, you must act fast. It is over November 28th. For tickets and times go to the MCC website and CLICK HERE.
The Visitor, is a haunting musical based on Thomas McCarthy’s resonant, titular, award-winning film (2007). In its World Premiere, The Visitor has been extended at The Public Theater, and is ending December 5th, 2021. That we are able to see it at all, given the pandemic which made New York City the global epicenter of death, shuttering theater for months, is nothing short of miraculous.
The egregious hell of the previous administration, including its threatened overthrow of the nation led by the former president and white supremacists who oppose immigration and the constitutional rule of law, may influence one toward a jaded view of The Visitor as woefully “uncurrent.” Some critics suggested this. Indeed, that is dismissive of the musical’s inherent hope, goodness and prescience. Not to view it through the proper lens of historical time would be as limiting as the unjust institutions and failed immigration policies that the production thematically indicts.
The Visitor, acutely directed by Daniel Sullivan, takes place after 2001 during the administration of President George W. Bush Jr., when certain groups viewed Muslim immigrants as possible terrorists. The period 2001-2007 was a less divisive time in the nation, but our failed immigration policies did stagnate and worsen, setting us up for future debacles and the growth of white domestic terrorism. Nevertheless, if one’s sensibilities are too upended by the traumas of the Trump administration to enjoy the musical without keeping the 2001-2007 time period in mind, the themes and the human core of this work by Tom Kitt (music) Brian Yorkey (lyrics) Kwame Kwei-Armah & Brian Yorkey (book) will be overlooked and given short shrift.
The themes are relayed principally through the relationships established between white college professor Walter (David Hyde Pierce in an emotional and effecting portrayal), Syrian Tarek (the likeable Ahmad Maksoud) and his girlfriend from Senegal, Zainab (the golden voiced Alysha Deslorieux). Believing Walter’s Manhattan apartment has been vacated, Tarek and Zainab, tricked by an “Ivan,” have been staying there without Walter’s knowledge. What occurs after Walter discovers their presence, takes us back to a time before Donald Trump’s inhumane immigration policies, Republican party nihilism and Democratic governors’ establishment of sanctuary cities to protect the undocumented and waiting asylum seekers.
The opening numbers (“Prologue,” “Wake Up,” “Voices Through a Window”) establish why Walter is amenable to not behaving like a guard dog (who would note Zainab’s accent and Tarek’s swarthy looks) and immediately call the police to arrest the couple. Walter is a professor, not law enforcement. However, Zainab sees the precariousness of their situation and with passion mitigates their mistake (Zainab’s Apology”). After they leave, Walter finds Zainab’s sketch pad and runs after them. What results is an act of hospitality and generosity, as he allows the couple to stay until they find somewhere else to go.
Walter’s state of mind, character, background and the loss of his wife and emotional destitution prompt this irregular action. On the couple’s part, Zainab, who has been through an undocumented female’s hell which we later discover (“Bound for America”) doesn’t trust Walter and presses Tarek to leave, despite their desperate circumstances. David Hyde Pierce, a consummate actor whose Walter floats like a ghost without any sense of purpose, mission or happiness, sparks to interest identifying with the couple’s romantic love (“Tarek and Zainab,”). He wants to trust in their goodness and decency because he has already lost everything worth anything to him and he has nothing left to lose.
Walter, Tarek and Zainab take this incredible risk because of their overwhelming needs. All are visitors to this land of human decency which they extend to each other with hope and a faith that grows and changes their lives. When Tarek teaches Walter how to play one of his djembes (a goblet drum played with bare hands that originated in West Africa) and takes him to the park to play with others (the incredible “Drum Circle”) a bond is formed that will never be broken.
The production’s music (thanks to Rick Edinger, Emily Whitaker, musicians and the entire music team) solidifies the themes of friendship, unity, empathy, humanity. Significantly, the music suggests another vital theme. It is through our cultural differences via artistic soul expression, that the commonality among all of us may best be found. These themes, during what appears to be the height of racism and white supremacy in our nation today must be affirmed more than ever. The Visitor does this with subtlety like a grand slam in bridge played with three cool finesses.
At the first turning point in the production, the center starts to give way. Though Walter tries to advocate for the inaccuracy of the transit cops’ charges, Tarek is arrested for “jumping” a subway turn style after he pays but can’t fit himself and his drum through it. The cops’ action underscores the inequity of the justice system. If he were white, they probably wouldn’t arrest him. The cops find it “inconvenient” to believe Tarek’s explanation. Nor do they follow Walter’s advice to check his card to verify Tarek’s truthfulness.
Discovering Tarek is undocumented, they put him in a detention center in Queens. Feeling responsible for Tarek’s situation, Walter hires an attorney, visits Tarek and keeps Zainab encouraged. It is in the detention center that we note the cruelty toward the undocumented, who are treated as criminals, though they are asylum seekers and willing to work for a better life for themselves. The music, lyrics and Lorin Latarro’s choreography, especially in “World Between Two Worlds” sung by Tarek, Walter and the Ensemble are superbly expressive, heart-wrenching and powerful.
As the stakes become higher in the second turning point, Tarek’s mother Mouna (the effecting, soulful Jacqueline Antaramian) visits Walter’s apartment looking for Tarek. Events complicate. Walter finds Mouna appealing and authentic. Mouna and Zainab ride the Staten Island Ferry. They finally become friends (“Lady Liberty”) and share how they believed the seductive promises of the “American Dream.” Because Mouna and Zainab may never see Tarek again in the U.S., Walter becomes the one they must turn to (“Heart in Your Hands,” “Blessings,” “Such Beautiful Music.”). Beyond hope (“What Little I Can Do”) Walter does his best, but the institutions fail him as they have failed us for years.
It is through the relationships with Tarek, Mouna, Zainab that Walter’s humanity and empathy are stirred to change his soul and his direction in life. It is the love for Tarek and the hope of his release that changes Mouna’s and Zainab’s relationship with each other. And their relationship with Walter establishes a new level of understanding that there are “good” people who will help. Finally, it is the stirring of Tarek’s concern for Zainab, that helps him realize his spiritual love and connection with her is not bounded by the material plane (“My Love is Free”) or held in by the walls of his jail cell, or deportation back to Syria. And it is that spiritual love for her and his connection to Walter that will help him face whatever he encounters.
As an archetype for all sane individuals, Walter realizes the issues underlying Tarek’s, Zainab’s, Mouna’s situation. We are to agree with him, the creative team hopes. These individuals are not “the other” that their nationless position or the white supremacists’ stereotyping suggests they are: dangerous, encroaching, grifting. In the showstopping “Better Angels” David Hyde Pierce prodigiously, emotionally expresses his song-prayer for Tarek. He petitions against the injustice of Tarek’s situation. Our nation should act better, but it has become unmoored from its founding ideals of liberty and the inalienable rights of human beings. (“We hold these truths to be self-evident…”)
As Pierce sings, the irony of an older white gentleman whose life has been bled out of him, standing in the gap for a young undocumented Syrian, who is full of vitality and hope, wanting to live his life to the fullest in a country that doesn’t deserve him, is beyond fabulous. It is also heartbreaking. Pierce, impassioned, speak/sings it out into the nether regions of spiritual consciousness. Is anyone listening? Have we forsaken our citizen right to help others?
I apologize for being moved for I thought of what was to come because of these failed immigration policies which continued and inspired the former President Donald Trump’s white supremacist agenda: kids in camps at the Southern Border, kids lost to parents for years, the undocumented dying in stifling heat and horrific conditions, proud Trumpers appreciating Steven Miller’s cruelty, while donating to grifter Steve Bannon’s fake “Build the Wall” fund.
The Visitor presciently, horrifically intimates what happens if injustice and cruelty are institutionalized and the populace is inured to it or worse, uses xenophobia as a whipping post to domestically terrorize others for pleasure’s sake. White supremacists have evolved to do so precisely because of failed immigration policies which a craven, unhinged politician exploits for his own grifting agenda.
Equally terrifying is the war of attrition against decency, and the lack of wisdom to appreciate this historically as revealed by The Visitor. If we consider that critics are inured/jaded not to see in The Visitor the failed state of our culture in 2001-2007, that augmented during and after the Obama administration, the loss of that understanding bears reviewing. And while many were thrilled with former President Obama, in the shadows, white supremacy groups grew by demonizing “the other.” Sadly, they blossomed to a “first wave,” who supported a president against democratic values, one who followed up with inhuman, indecent acts from immigration crimes to COVID deaths.
The character of Walter reminds white males it’s OK to be human and humane and decent and empathetic. To think this production is not “current” enough via its historical perspective is misguided.
In Kitt’s, Yorkey’s, Kwame Kwei-Armah’s musical, Tarek and Mouna symbolize the courageous willing who take horrific risks. We need to be reminded of this again and again. Sullivan’s profound direction prompts the musical to change our perspective through empathy and identification. Thematically, The Visitor suggests we no longer allow ourselves to be like inconsequential stones kicked around by politicians. What is it like to sustain the impossible hardship of leaving all that was familiar and comforting in the hope of escaping catastrophe, only to never gain the security sought (“Where Is Home?/No Home”)? As climate change continues to roil the planet and immigration issues exacerbate, we can’t drop a stitch of understanding or subdue an impulse to assist in whatever way we can.
The actors/singers, phenomenal swings, musicians and creative team stir us to listen to the production’s call to arms. We must reform our failed immigration policies that have caused horrific pain for asylum seekers and dreamers. as they wait for citizenship to no avail. Not only must changes be made, they must be made permanent so that no Executive Order, lawsuit or state can reverse it to pleasure white supremacists.
Specific shout outs to David Zinn’s evocative scenic design: the steel backdrop of the detention center and its ironic contrast, Walter’s comfortable apartment. Kudos to Toni-Leslie James (costumes) Japhy Weideman (lighting) and others who helped to make The Visitor a compelling, must-see production. For tickets and times visit the website: CLICK HERE.
The Dark Outside by Bernard Kops currently at Theater for the New City is the renowned 94-year-old English playwright’s most recent work. The play uplifts the importance of family with themes of unity, love, encouragement, light and hope against the all-encroaching darkness that would turn family members against each other and destroy them. Kops’ lyrical play had a staged reading at London’s National Portrait Gallery in 2020. It is a great irony that The Dark Outside presciently foreshadowed the tenor of the times as the pandemic broke out and upended global society and culture right after the reading.
Through the COVID-19 chaos and upheaval, which bred uncertainty, want and fear, oftentimes, family provided the bulwark of steadfastness against psychic and physical infirmities and death. Disastrously, in the United States the divisiveness over how to handle COVID-19 became a political football which, to this day, divides families and ends friendships. Most importantly, Kops’ The Dark Outside reminds us of the moral, sociological and personal imperative of the family unit to sustain its members. Though the inevitable tribulations of life will come, they can be withstood through love’s immutable power.
In this premiere at Theater for the New City, director Jack Serio and the creative team deliver the beauty and sanctity of the play’s themes with a fascinating production that is incredibly timely. Serio highlights the British dramatist’s poetic sensibilities and notes Kops’ homage to archetypal character types through the production’s staging and overall design elements.
To achieve Kops’ ethereality, Serio selects minimalism. The production strips away material clutter and simplifies, using the bareness of space. In the atmosphere created, the superb acting ensemble conjures up the symbolic mulberry tree, the garden behind the house, the dinner, and more. All are in the service of Kops’ revelations about this family’s unity, inspired by the beautiful and loving mother and wife, Helen, portrayed with precision by Katharine Cullison and supported by the wounded, sensitive, poetic father and husband Paul, played by the impeccable Austin Pendleton.
At the outset, Kops introduces us to Paul (Pendleton) the father/husband, a former East London tailor who faces a life crisis after he loses the use of his arm in an accident. To inspire and encourage Paul, wife/mother Helen (Cullison) gathers their children, Penny (Kathleen Simmonds) Ben (Jesse McCormick) and Sophie (Brenna Donahue) to unify the family at the important occasion of celebrating Paul’s birthday.
As the play progresses, we discover that each of the children confronts conflicts and traumas in their own lives. Thus, the chaos that is outside on the streets and in the neighborhoods that Paul often refers to threatens to disturb and destroy each of the family members unless they are able to work through their problems, seeking the comfort of each other to tide them over to face another day.
Kops uses the majestic mulberry tree in the family’s garden to reveal the issues of the characters. For strength and peace, family members confess their angst and deep secrets to the tree whose life force listens and, in its silence, allows the characters to gain an inner solace and calm. Additionally, sisters Sophie and Penny share confidences. Sophie relates a horrific experience that caused her to leave college and spiral downward into emotional devastation and near destruction.
Sophie’s salvation is in coming home where she finds love, acceptance and redemption. Revitalized, Ben and Sophie receive great comfort in the arms and soul strength of Helen, who soothes and reassures both as she helps them overcome their inner hell. Paul’s great appreciation of his amazing wife is his continual blessing. Cullison and Pendleton are authentic and believable in the relationship they build of the loving couple. Thus, it follows that the children, despite their heart-rending troubles, have rightly come home to heal, as they receive encouragement and love from their parents.
Of the joys in this production are the poems and songs that are wide-ranging and eclectic. These, the family sings together or recites individually as expressions of emotion that are difficult to articulate. The songs resonate and recapture the play’s themes. They indicate how the family copes when a member needs help and uplifting. This is especially so in the poignant conclusion when Helen sweetly sings Paul to sleep with soothing grace. The moment is mythic in its power, and it is obvious that love’s sanctity is a balm which never falls short or fails. Thus, by the conclusion, joy returns to the household. The “darkness” has been thwarted with regard to Ben and Sophie who return to the family to complete the circle of love.
The only one who does not join them and leaves for New York City with her husband is Penny. In her move it is intimated that the wholeness of the family may remain incomplete for a season. But we have seen the strength of the archetypal mother who unites her children and husband. Regardless of whether the external darkness is in London or in New York City, Helen will continue to be the binding force that holds the family together with grace.
Jack Serio, the cast and the creative team have delivered the essence of Kops’ work and made it memorable. With the music and sound (Nick T. Moore) scenic design (Walt Spangler’s leaves are a lovely addition) the modulations of the darkness and light symbolism through Keith Parham’s lighting design, the production’s heightened moments are felt acutely. This is one that should be seen because of its cast and the symbolic iteration of one of Kops most heart-felt works.
The production runs at Theater for the New City until November 28th when Bernard Kops turns 95-years old. It is a feat for one of Europe’s best-known and most admired playwrights who the Queen awarded a Civil List pension for his services to literature. It is an award garnered by a very select few, namely Lord Byron, Wordsworth and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. For tickets and times go to the website https://theaterforthenewcity.net/shows/the-dark-outside/
The musical Trevor with book and lyrics by Dan Collins and music by Julianne Wick Davis manages to run an emotional continuum from delightful, funny and whimsical to poignant, profound and heart-breakingly current. Based on the 1994 titular short film which inspired a suicide prevention organization, The Trevor Project, the musical comedy delivers without being a hokey, silly-serious “message” play. This is principally due to the vibrant direction by Marc Bruni, the fine cast lead by the impish Holden William Hagelberger, the energetic musical direction by Matt Deitchman and the ebullient choreography by Josh Prince.
As a result, the musical comedy soars just high enough in the first act without burning itself up in the second, which takes a dark turn but remains ironic and soulfully empathetic. Its subject matter remains human and will touch even the most hard-hearted bigots who were never “cool” or “awesomely popular” in school. Above all Trevor touches upon the human need to be inspired by secret goals and dreams, which keep us enthusiasts of life and young at heart.
The original story by Celeste Lecesne generated the Academy Award-winning short film “Trevor” directed by Peggy Raiski and produced by Randy Stone. The film serves as an excellent foundation for the stage adaptation because it resonates with the familiar and never stands on sanctimony. Unfortunately, the all too probable “real life” situation provides the key conflict in the musical. What Trevor faces happens every day in a school in every school system in the nation to kids who are brave enough not to fit in despite the pain and bullying miscreants who will punish them for it out of cowardice and fear.
The musical in its New York premiere highlights the enthusiastic teen, Diana Ross fan and wanna be singer and performer Trevor, who is coming into his gay identity which he accepts and reconciles by the end of the production. Trevor lives in a suburb in 1981 before LGBTQ was “a thing” and at the outset of the AIDS crisis before it was “identified” as such. Neither of those factor into the arc of Trevor’s discovery and affirmation of himself which is a huge plus. Indeed, we are only caught up in the dramadey of this coming of age story without the angst or preachy assertions about gender identity. Trevor is and because he is, he is unequivocally acceptable and adorable in the human family.
Trevor’s uptight Catholic parents (Sally Wilfert, Jarrod Zimmerman) are clueless. Their fearful refusal to acknowledge that Trevor might be “gay” is humorous (thanks to Wilfert and Zimmerman). Their lack of understanding provides one of the conflicts in the production when they deliver Trevor to Father Joe, a Catholic priest for counseling. He is as helpful as a rock and Trevor’s reaction and the situation provides irony and humor. Importantly, Trevor must work out his own “redemption” for himself with the help of his friends, however difficult that is. Nevertheless, it is his talent and his dreams and interests that see him through the dark times.
Holden William Hagelberger is a likable and cheerful Trevor who is involved in his own world with his school friends, the funny geek Walter (Aryan Simhadri) and the awkward, humorous Cathy (Alyssa Emily Marvin) with glasses and rubber bands on her braces. Trevor is considered weird by the other kids in school, but fate throws him in with Pinky (the fine Sammy Dell) one of the most popular kids. Pinky is kind to Trevor who gives him help to hook up with Frannie (Isabel Medina).
As Pinky and Trevor become friendly, Trevor finds himself “falling for” Pinky, having his first crush on a guy. Unfortunately, the friendship turns sour when someone steals Trevor’s notebook which has entries that indicate how much Pinky means to him. When Trevor’s classmates treat him as an “invisible” to punish him for his “crush” on Pinky, Trevor is devastated and takes it out on himself.
The turning point in the play with the number “Your Life is Over,” is campy and staged well (as are most of the musical numbers). The serious subject of suicide (Trevor tries to OD on Aspirin) is dealt with as a Diva’s comedic irony, skirting the edge of darkness successfully. Yet, the seriousness of what occurs is noted with concern and reverence.
How Trevor comes out of his morass of emotions with the help of his friends, and specifically his trust in the magically realistic Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) who appears and disappears when he needs her, encourages and enlightens. Indeed, Diana Ross is an extension of Trevor’s talent and wisdom. In his reliance on this inner ethos, we are released into an uplifting resolution in Act II.
Trevor does not wear political correctness on its sleeve. Nor does it beat its breast with finger-pointing. In remaining real and human, the creators hit this production out of the ballpark with its humor, music and the ensemble’s energy. Its appeal is wide-ranging. Who would not uplift being decent and kind? Who would disavow the Golden Rule to do unto others as we would have them do unto us? These values are cross-cultural, cross-national, cross-global. In its message, the production is not self-aggrandizing nor pushing any political stance. How refreshing! As such, that is Trevor’s strength and why it should be performed in schools across the nation.
Kudos to the creative team, to the director’s apt shepherding of the ensemble who does a bang up job led by Diana Ross (Yasmeen Sulieman) Trevor (Holden William Hagelberger) and Pinky (Sammy Dell). For tickets and times to see this must-see musical go to their website. https://www.trevorthemusical.com/?gclid=Cj0KCQiA-K2MBhC-ARIsAMtLKRsWL0YelVs_Hh9DC-KAOX76sPUOKMSwC-3EmKmF0YoUMHsHeY_bhQEaAtPGEALw_wcB
Morning Sun by Simon Stephens directed by Lila Neugebauer, presented by Manhattan Theatre Club (New York City Center Stage 1), takes its name from the titular Edward Hopper painting. Hopper’s austere work is of a woman on her bed in bright sunlight staring out the window that faces a factory type building in the distance and rooftops below. The building is out of view from the high-floor perspective of the painted cityscape.
Edward Hopper came from the same hometown, Nyack, as the McBride family women who make reference to him with pride. The painting “Morning Sun” is symbolically appropriate, because Stephens’ protagonist (#1 or Charlotte/Charley) played with terrific focus and authenticity by Eddie Falco, is peering out the window of her life in a flashback life review. She recalls to remembrance her past, assisted by Blair Brown (#2, her mother) and Marin Ireland (#3 her daughter). The woman in the painting steeped in reflection and introspection mirrors Charley McBride.
Brown, Falco and Ireland represent three generations of the lower middle-class McBride women. We see their perspectives and lives as they discuss their relationship with Charley who is the centerpiece of the play. Brown and Ireland also portray the important friends, family and male partners who populated Charley’s life and who are central to the events that took her on her singular journey through the stages of youth, middle age and beyond.
The exposition begins after Charley cries out about safety and security for herself, like a child crying out in the dark. The others assure her she is safe, and calm her down. We understand this beginning to mean that Charley initially is in a place where she fears for her safety. Ironically, it comes to refer to her entire life as a question of unsafe uncertainty. Like every human being who confronts death every moment without accepting or understanding the conundrum of life in death, they move without fully grasping that their instinctive purpose is to stay alive until they leave this earthly plane.
Stephens intimates that there is another consciousness, and the characters inhabit some netherworld in it. But he never clarifies the specifics and certainly not with any religious overlay. Thus, Charley’s cries have great moment. However, we don’t realize why this is so and to what she refers to in her cries until the conclusion, when Stephens reveals it.
With rapid-fire unveiling, the women stream through the beginning, middle and ending of Charley’s life assessment. Their exposition has break through dynamic moments where the women or men that #2 and #3 portray argue or disagree and resist Charley. The drama of a “life well or ill lived” is bled out of Charley’s existence which might be characterized as one of the invisible millions of “average” and “ordinary” women. These lived and died as New Yorkers making do, because they decided not to commit suicide and affirm their identity with an important emotional statement embracing death as a balm for their life’s miseries. Without much reflection or philosophical pondering, they a day-to-day existence.
Charley’s chronicle is sandwiched between Claudette’s move to New York City and purchase of an apartment on 11th St. in Greenwich Village where she raises Charley, and years later when Charley comes back to visit and stay with Tessa after she moves to Colorado. The apartment bought on the cheap, in a questionable area grows in value and becomes the envy of all who hear of it, including the audience.
We learn that Claudette arrived in NYC to escape upstate New York and an untenable home-life. By degrees almost as an expanded laundry list, we learn of Claudette’s work, her husband, Charley’s father, Charley’s formative years, her friendship with Casey, her work as a receptionist at St. Vincent’s Hospital, her one-night stand with a pilot and her pregnancy and decision to keep Tessa as a single mother without extensive means. We also learn of Charley’s substantive partners, one abusive, the other kind.
The chronicle is also of New York City’s rise, fall and rise again, revealed as Stephens intertwines Charley’s personal events through the decades which are sometimes impacted by the culture. Ironically, Claudette wants to linger on the 60s, her generation, while Charley affirms the 70s is more important and it’s about “her life” after all. Thus, politics and the upheavals of the 1960s roll off Charley’s back without notice. We consider that Claudette’s viewpoints perhaps were shaped by that time, while Charley, the recipient of the benefits of the 60s social upheavals, remains unconcerned about them.
Throughout, as New York’s financial situation improves, there is discussion about the apartment and what to do with it. We discover that one of Charley’s partners, Brian, who Claudette can’t tolerate because he abused her daughter, persists in trying to get Charley to sell the place, even after they split up. Such discussions become points of humor, as every New Yorker at one time or another finds looking for a place to live, finding a place to live and staying once they’ve found it, one of the main preoccupations of being a New Yorker and living in the city.
Stephens’ vehicle of using #2 and #3 to supplement Charley’s perspective with the men and friends in her life offers an unsettling, unemotional scoping of a list of remembrances that speed us to the why and wherefore of Charley’s existence, however tedious it may be for the audience. The exposition in its great swaths of the non-confrontational is wearisome and uneventful. My neighbor in the audience slept through most of the play and at one point, I found myself almost joining him as I struggled to stay “woke.”
Clearly, Stephens is making a thematic point similar to one heralded by Thorton Wilder’s Emily in Act 3 of Our Town. That life, all of it, especially in its sameness and undramatic monotone is wonderful. Even if one’s life is dreary, monochromatic, dull and uneventful, it is up to us, the players, to bring purpose and meaning to it. This, Charley realizes by the end of the play. She understands the great importance of being a receptionist at St. Vincent’s after the hospital is shut down. She tells Tessa the amazing things about her that she loves.
Such realizations, Stephens suggests, arrive just on time for their full appreciation. Indeed, Charley understands by the end, that she misses what she took for granted as a privilege. Most importantly, those people, places and wants only resonate with her unique ethos and being.
The strength of Stephen’s work which requires a yeowoman’s job of getting all of the details down is in the overall message and the last few minutes of the play which is an apotheosis for Charley and the audience. Throughout, Falco is a tour de force, in a role beautifully rendered, especially at the conclusion. Blair Brown and Marin Ireland are wonderful assistants, though Ireland needed to project and at times in her inward emotion-gathering became a faint wisp, indeed, in character, but not always articulated.
Director Lila Neugebauer properly stages Morning Sun in the ethers, not focusing on the material aspects of the production so that we listen carefully and take in the lives being shared with us. Though Charley’s journey is told in flashback narrative, we do come to trust the reliability of those who speak. This is a testament to the actors and director savoring the playwright’s work.
Kudos to the creative team: dots (scenic design) Kaye Voyce (costume design) Lap Chi Chu (lighting design) Lee Kinney and Daniel Kluger (sound design) Daniel (original music) Tom Watson (hair and wig design). For tickets and times go to https://www.manhattantheatreclub.com/shows/2021-22-season/morning-sun/