Monday, January 28, 2013

The Miracle Worker, TrueNorth Cultural Arts

(Heather Brown as Kate Keller and Morgan Faith Williams as Helen Keller)

Some scripts are so treasured, honored and oft-seen it’s almost impossible to breathe new life into them. That is certainly the case with The Miracle Worker by William Gibson, since every school and community theater in the country has probably done it, many multiple times.

But the good news is that this staging produced by TrueNorth Cultural Arts is a fresh and involving presentation. Thanks to the granular direction of Fred Sternfeld and well-calibrated performances by a strong cast, this production provides an emotional roller-coaster ride that never seems forced or maudlin.

Of course, the story is nothing new since most of us, many children included, have internalized the traumatic journey of Helen Keller from a basically hellacious and non-functional child into the icon we cherish today.

It is only when Annie Sullivan enters the Keller home do things begin to change for the better. Annie, formerly blind herself until a successful surgery, is a no-nonsense teacher. Wrestling with her charge, literally and figuratively, Annie eventually manages to break through the walls of blindness, deafness and the inability to speak that always seemed impenetrable.

Those two roles are obviously critical to the success of any staging of Miracle, and TrueNorth could have hardly done better than Morgan Faith Williams as Helen and Lara Knox as Annie.

The slight and young Williams sinks deeply into the role of Helen, fighting like a spitfire to maintain her character’s control over her severely reduced universe. And Knox’s Annie battles her tooth and nail as shoves, slaps and kicks are exchanged in their scenes together.

They are supported most ably by fine characterizations in smaller roles. Helen’s parents show all their love and confusion as portrayed by Heather Brown and Robert Hawkes. And Jeremy Jenkins executes a clever turn as James, Helen’s half-brother and an occasional voice of reason in the fractured household.

Director Fred Sternfeld shapes many small moments that eventually collect into an avalanche of emotion at the end. As a result, the tears you feel on your cheeks at the end of the play are well-earned.

The Miracle Worker
Through February 3 at the TrueNorth Cultural Arts Center, 4530 Colorado Avenue, Sheffield Village, 440-949-5200, ext. 221

The Gospel According to James, Ensemble Theatre

 Developing a recorded history of any event is often a subjective and fraught process. The people who tell the stories of any occurrence bring their own emotions and agendas to the table, influencing the final picture that other people receive.

That idea is woven into the core of The Gospel According to James by Charles Smith, now at Ensemble Theatre. This is an adventurous and risk-taking piece, since it never provides the audience with an agreed-upon set of facts. And while there are some intricately nuanced performances on stage, slow pacing and excessive introspection veer the production off the best possible path.

The 2½-hour experience centers on an actual lynching of two black men, Abe Smith and Tommy Shipp, in Marion, Indiana in 1930. It is narrated by two people, Marie and James, who end up discussing the event in 1980 with divergent memories and wholly separate goals.

Marie and James are back in Marion 50 years after the awful day and meet up, in either a realistic or imaginary space, as you wish. Marie, who is white, is there to attend to the funeral of her father, Hoot Ball, while James, who is African-American and a survivor of the lynching, is there to drum up support for a memorial to his two long-dead friends.

From the start, Marie attacks James for his continued “lying” about the events of that day. Back in the day, Marie was called Mary (portrayed by Katie Nabors), a high-spirited young woman who cavorted with Abe and Tommy and the young and naive James who at the time was called “Apples” (J’Vaughn T. Briscoe).

For his part, James is calm and focused, trying to bring out Marie’s story while disagreeing with her on many points. And he’s packing a metal ammunition box filled with bits of historical evidence—a piece of the lynching rope, bark from the tree—to use in his own version of an American Yad Vashem-style memorial to lynching victims.

A significant part of the play is told in those flashbacks, as we see gregarious Abe (an intoxicatingly endearing Kyle Carthens) and Tommy (a slightly unstable but quite amusing Antuane Rogers) fence with the white folks in town. Those rednecks are represented by Keith E. Stevens, who struts and attacks like a banty rooster as Claude.

Then there’s Hoot and his wife Bea, played with snap and specificity by Tim Walsh and Valerie Young. Indeed, these flashback scenes that lead to a murder and then the lynching often ripple with genuine emotion and honesty.

Many of the production’s weakness stem from the 1980 scenes, as Marie and James deal with each other and their haunted memories. As the reluctant but still passionate Marie, Anne McEvoy lends a much-needed accent of cynicism to the proceedings.  

But Peter Lawson Jones, a fine actor, never seems entirely hooked into the arc of the elderly James. He is hampered by the script, which often only gives James lines that tell his story (“They made me feel ashamed.”) instead of showing it.

As a result, these narrative sequences, which take place upstage on a platform, feel divorced from the blood and sinew of what’s going on below them. And that does not enhance the theatrical impact of the work.

Director Celeste Cosentino is to be congratulated for taking on such a complex play, and for helping to shape several fine performances. But by not staging the show in a way that Marie and James can truly engage with each other and the audience in a visceral manner, the interesting “history of memory” conflict that playwright Smith sets up never comes to full fruition.

Still, there are truths here about how we view history, and race, that deserve to be seen.

The Gospel According to James
Through February 17 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland Hts., 216-321-2930

Friday, January 25, 2013

Bell, Book and Candle, Cleveland Play House

So, this is what happens when you settle in to review a play and a reading pops up. In this case, the reading was an elaborate one of Bell, Book and Candle by John van Druten, the 1950 romantic comedy that became a flick starring Kim Novak and James Stewart.

It was a reading because on this night (Jan. 24), the lead character Gillian, an urbane witch on the make for human love, was played at the last minute (almost literally) by CWRU/CPH MFA Acting Program participant Christa Hinckley. She was handed the script a bare six hours before curtain due to the original actor, Georgia Cohen, ralphing her guts out from food poisoning, the flu, or some other intestinal contretemps.

Of course, Hinckley carried the script for the whole show, and did a damned admirable job of it, all in all. Still, the timing between her and her co-players was spotty at best. And since we were often denied Ms. Hinckley’s eyes, focused as they were on her lines, it was hard to track her emotional transition from witch to human that makes this barely-there story at all tolerable.

As a result, it’s really not fair to go further into a deep a critical analysis of this performance. But looking beyond the awkwardness of the stand-in situation, a few things can be said. To begin with this play—even when performed splendidly—is a bit of a soggy biscuit.

The plot, which is not much more sophisticated than an episode of the old sit-com Bewitched, telegraphs its conclusion from the first couple minutes (Will the sexy young witch succeed in finding human love. Hmm, I wonder.)

And the pacing of some scenes seems glacial, a defect that director Michael Bloom doesn’t correct (if it’s even within his power, the play is that deadly).

Eric Martin Brown fences gamely with his role as Gillian’s supernaturally smitten boyfriend, and Marc Moritz adds a bit of zazz as Sidney Redlitch, a witch researcher. But Patricia Kilgarriff doesn’t squeeze enough laughs out of her elder witch status as Gillian’s aunt (paging Marion Lorne!), and Jeremy Webb as Gil’s brother seems stuck uncomfortably between a 1930s movie-sissy archetype and a sinister nogoodnik.

Even the modern, eclectic, trying-a-little-too-hard set by Russell Parkman feels like a concept board rather than an actual place humans (or witches) might live.

But hey, it’s a very mild comedy that ruffles no feathers. So if you’re recovering from something wretched (retched?)—as we hope Ms. Cohen is doing right now—this vanilla show will do nothing to disturb your fragile condition.

Bell, Book and Candle
Through February 3 at the Cleveland Play House, 1407 Euclid Avenue, 216-241-6000