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Kennedy Center Terrace Theater - ARCHIVE
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October 22 - 25, 2008
Reviewed October 22 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:40 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for Ireland's Druid Theatre performing
 two of Synge's comedies with heart

Click here to buy the script

If you've seen and enjoyed Signature Theatre's production of Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore (and if you haven't, you should stop reading and go get a ticket) you would do well to consider catching this Irish company handle the play that came first. Its not that Inishmore is the only descendent of John Millington Synge's 1907 play. There have been many "spin offs" over the past century. And it certainly isn't that Synge's play is as bloody as McDonagh's. Nothing is. But the connection is direct and interesting with both finding humor and insight in outrageous developments. And you don't get a chance to see a classic of the Irish theatrical tradition performed by a classic Irish troop very often. Thrown in for good measure is the added attraction of a second play by Synge in the same evening. Druid, a superb professional company from Galway, mounts his shorter, one act comedy The Shadow of the Glen before settling in to present the three act comedy that is Synge's most famous plays, The Playboy of the Western World. Don't let the title fool you. Synge was not writing about the kind of playboy for which Hugh Hefner named his magazine. There are no Playboy Bunnies frolicking in hot tubs in this tale of life among the poor rural inhabitants of an Ireland still reeling half a century after the potato famine. No, here the term has its earlier meaning, that of a trickster, a man who spins a tale for effect. And, in Synge's hands, it is quite a tale and quite an effect.

Storyline: Irish theater company Druid first presents J. M. Synge's one act comedy of a woman preparing for the wake for her husband only to find he has staged his own death to test her devotion. Then the company tackles Synge's three act comedy in which a young man stumbles into a tiny pub in rural western Ireland claiming to have killed his abusive father. The townspeople protect him and he becomes something of a celebrity until his father shows up, not having died from his son's blow to the head. The townspeople then turn on the boy.

Synge styled Playboy as "a comedy in three acts." It is certainly not meant as a farce, sketch comedy or a comedy of manners. But it has elements of humor darkened by a particular Irish sentimentality. For example, as pleasing as the musical meter of the exchange about just how the young man killed his father might be, it is clearly intended to draw laughs: "you shot him dead?" / "I never used weapons.  I've no license, and I'm a law-fearing man." / "It was with a hilted knife maybe?  I'm told, in the big world it's bloody knives they use." / "Do you take me for a slaughter-boy?" / "You never hanged him ...? " / "I did not then.  I just riz the loy and let fall the edge of it on the ridge of his skull ... "

The cast delivers that language in a thick brogue that makes the patterns of the words approach a musical quality, but it often requires intense concentration to convert that music to meaning. While a sufficiently detailed synopsis of the first short play is printed in the program (read it just before the lights go down) the longer work requires more than the single sentence the program devotes to it. To fully enjoy the performance, do a bit of study before you go. There is a fine, detailed synopsis on a website maintained as a free public service by Michael J. Cummings, a former college professor in Pennsylvania. It is at http://www.cummingsstudyguides.net/Guides3/Synge.html. Reading it carefully before seeing the show will increase your enjoyment many fold.

This production is directed by Druid founder and current artistic director Garry Hynes, who directed A Streetcar Named Desire here at the Kennedy Center as part of the Tennessee Williams Celebration in 2004. She evidenced a strong visual sense in that production and that sense is again quite clear. The set is a beautiful representation of a tiny rural cottage-turned-pub expanded to fill the entire stage of the Terrace Theater. Beautiful stage pictures are created through dramatic lighting (although it is slightly distracting to have candles that don't create shadows when they appear to be the only source of illumination in a room, or on the other hand, the shadow of a lamp itself that obscures the face of a character during a key speech). Hynes stages the early scenes of Playboy with cast members widely dispersed and then, as the evening progresses, tightens up the blocking to concentrate the action and enhance the sense of accelerating emotional intensity. She has her cast, a tremendously talented and obviously dedicated bunch, create specific postures for each character and then maintain or even intensify the characteristics as the evening progresses. Marcus Lamb's controlled contortions as disappointed suitor Shawn Keogh, are particularly effective and both Sarah-Jane Drummey as the barmaid he fancies and Simon Boyle as the playboy she fancies are great fun to watch, especially if you've read enough in advance to know what they are up to.

Written by John Millington Synge. Directed by Garry Hynes. Incidental music composed by Sam Jackson. Design: Francis O'Connor (set) Kathy Strachan (costumes) Val Sherlock (wigs and makeup) David Bolger (movement) David Cunningham (lights) Nick Burchell (photography) Sarah Lynch and Paula Tierney (stage managers). Cast: Simon Boyle, Sarah-Jane Drummey, Caoilfhionn Dunne, Kelly Gough, Peter Gowen, Tom Hickey, Marcus Lamb, Hannah McCabe, Fergal McElherron, John Olahan, Catherine Walsh.

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Seven Guitars
March 14-16, April 3
Reviewed March 14 by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:45 - one intermission
An emotionally challenging play read well
Price - $65

Click here to buy the script

August Wilson's 1940's installment in his cycle of ten plays set decade by decade throughout the twentieth century is another emotionally involving story of characters who are solidly drawn and whose language captures their hopes, their fears and their world in words that ring true whether read from the page or heard from the stage. Most of the cast has appeared in Wilson plays before - some playing the roles they play here. Their familiarity with the material also signals their appreciation for it. There is a clear devotion to the language of August Wilson - indeed, the cast ends the curtain call by raising their scripts in one unified gesture that says "your applause is for this!" It is a fine moment. The evening that precedes it features superb performances by Harry Lennix as the would-be recording star who has to spring his guitar from pawn if he's to realize the dreams of his life, and Afemo Omilami as the character whose name continues through Wilson's cycle to resonate in the title of the play dealing with the 1980s, King Hedley II. Strong performances come from each of the other five cast members. They all carry the script in their hands which is a distraction. Kenny Leon, the artistic director of the entire cycle, designed a leather binding for the scripts (see the photo on the right) which is a touch of class. But it is still a distraction.

Storyline: In the Hill District of Pittsburgh in 1948, would-be recording star Floyd Barton finally has hope. After squandering the fee for his only recording session, leaving Vera, the woman who had stood by him, spending ninety days in the workhouse and pawning his guitar, the first glimmer of a turnaround comes in the form of a letter from the recording company asking him to come record more songs for them. His neighbors care about his life but also have concerns of their own. Hedley, whose father named him King, Ruby who isn't quite sure who is the father of the baby she's carrying, and the others move on with their lives while Floyd tries to convince his former love to come to Chicago with him for the recording session.

There are two ways to approach this production. One is to view it as one of the ten staged readings of the entire history-making ten play cycle covering the century. To achieve this, a theatergoer would have to attend ten performances - preferably in the chronological order of the play's subjects. This would mean ten separate visits to the Terrace Theatre totaling nearly 30 hours at a cost of $650. Such a commitment of time and money is significant but this is an unprecedented opportunity which can be expected to yield impressive insights into Wilson's unprecedented accomplishment. Another is to approach it as a free-standing offering, a dramatic presentation on its own. Either way, it offers solid performances, fine costuming, acceptable setting, lighting and incidental music.

The opportunity to experience the entire cycle is unique and, so, making allowances for the fact that these are readings may well be justified. As a stand-alone production, however, this performance suffers from the fact that the cast is reading from the scripts they hold in their hands. Normally, the concept of a staged reading serves a developing work well, allowing a playwright a chance to judge how a piece will impact a live audience. For a finished work - especially one as finely crafted and highly thought of as are each of Wilson's ten plays - a reading does a disservice to the work, and at full prices, shortchanges the paying public. Certainly, the cast members all really do know their lines - they've rehearsed and studied and prepared as professionals do. The amount of rehearsal time may have been less than for a "fully staged production" but these professionals do know their jobs. Still, the presence of the script in their hands is a distraction and some (but not all) break their concentration to find their place from time to time. The play begins with bantering dialogue between characters which is awkward when the performers are speaking to their scripts rather than to each other. Worse, because their hands are occupied with the bound script, hand held props are not used. It is really distracting to have the actors mime the process of handing items like a pack of cigarettes from one to the other. Obviously the actors and the director know that consulting the scripts can harm a moment or a scene. As the emotional intensity of the action escalates in the second act, some in the cast cease holding the scripts up and stop looking at them entirely.

The best aspect of the physical design is the work of costume designer Reggie Ray. While the demands of using a repertory cast for the entire cycle and the decision to minimize costume changes within any given play limited him somewhat, the costumes are as well done as you would expect of a full production at the best of theaters. What's more, costume changes that are important to a given play are included. Vanessa Bell Calloway changes from a print housedress to a slinky red number when, as Vera, she decides to go with Harry Lennix's Floyd to Chicago. David Gallo designed a basic set for the entire cycle with a massive "portal" inside the Terrace Theater's proscenium, and a backdrop of his sketch of the Hill District of Pittsburgh where nine of the ten plays take place. For each of the individual plays, set pieces consisting of windows, doors, porches or walls are slid into place creating the basic spatial relationship required for the action. It is something less than you would see for a full production of one of the plays, but it is sufficient to help create the feel of Wilson's world. It is aided by active lighting which alters the appearance of the backdrop for scenes that take place in morning, afternoon or evening or as interiors or exteriors. Nighttime never gets quite as dark as might otherwise be the case, however, because the actors need enough light to be able to see their scripts.

Written by August Wilson. Directed by Derrick Sanders. Design: David Gallo (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Allen Lee Hughes (lights) Dwight Andrews (music) Brandon Prendergast (stage manager). Cast: Vanessa Bell Calloway, Crystal Fox, Russell Hornsby, LaTanya Richardson Jackson, Harry Lennix, Afemo Omilami, Ellis E. Williams.

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King Hedley II
March 23, 27, April 6
Reviewed March 23 by David Siegel

Running time  -  3 hours - one intermission
A prophetic cry to Heaven for relief by the impoverished
Price - $65
Click here to buy the script

August Wilson’s King Hedley II is the 1980’s installment of his cycle of 10 decades through 10 plays dealing with 20th Century African American life in the United States.  As with the previously reviewed Seven Guitars, the cast is performing a fully staged reading; that means they carry their scripts with them throughout the production. What is so very fortunate for DC area audiences at this staged reading is that the director and cast is so very familiar with Wilson from their previous work, including specifically with King Hedley II.  Director Derrick Sanders also directed the critically well-received revival of Hedley at New York’s Signature Theater in 2007. It is with pleasure that this reviewer reports that rarely are the scripts checked or read from and rarer still are there dropped lines or miscues. As with Seven Guitars, at the curtain call, the cast holds high the specially covered scripts to the appreciative audience. Given the prophetic language and Biblical references throughout King Hedley II, this gesture feels like a spiritual movement; it has a church-like feel such as parishioners holding their Bibles up high to praise God or as in a synagogue when the assembled kiss their prayer books as an act of devotion to God. Hedley is a drama that should be seen in order to understand the fullest picture of what Wilson was trying to say to the rest of us. The original 2001 Broadway production had only a short run of 72 performances after its pre-Broadway tryout right here at the Kennedy Center. The play was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize.

Storyline: An ex-con in the Reagan years tries to rebuild his life by selling stolen refrigerators and robbing the neighborhood jeweler so he can buy a video store. But grand dreams for his wife and unborn child are threatened by a system that does not play by his rules. He pays the ultimate price from an unexpected source.

Wilson's King Hedley II is one of his lesser known and revived plays. Wilson has created a loud prophetic cry to Heaven by those here on Earth who feel dispossessed, unloved, unnoticed and undervalued. The production begins with a voice-over introduction to the United States as the greatest country in the world, but one whose promise is yet unmet. Then there is the cry of an urban prophet who teaches that people need to know the story of where they came from if they are to make progress for themselves and their children to a better place here on Earth, and if they continue to sin or forget to teach their children, God will bring the fire next time. Throughout Hedley there is the constant juxtaposition of those with faith and those more secular in their approach to the conditions they face. In this staged reading directed by Derrick Sanders, the feel is of a full production. Sure there are few changes of costumes, and fewer nifty theatrical devices, both technical and cast generated, but after this production gets rolling, there is no sense of being slighted. Sanders knows his business since he has directed Hedley before. He lets the script carry itself on its own very strong legs. It is an excellent choice, especially for those who have not seen the piece before. The audience gets to “read” the script rather than dramatic flourishes. Thank You, Mr. Sanders.

The complex, weighty work of Russell Hornsby’s King Hedley II is both heat and emotion quickly brought out, but also a tenderness that is truly unexpected. His love for growing plants in “bad dirt” carries a sense of what Hedley might really want … calm and peace in his life, his marriage and hopes for his unborn child. Lynda Gravatt’s earthy 60+ year old Ruby, mother to Hedley, is a calming influence on the action of this piece until the very last scene, when the unexpected and somewhat operatic and melodramatic happens. Gravatt is definitely one sensual being whenever the script calls for it. She can swing her shoulders and give a sassy line delivery that bring hoots and hollers from the audience. James A. Williams, as Stool Pigeon the Prophet, presents his prophetic words with ardor and then just disappears from view and returns with more faith for the community to hear. Heather Alicia Simms is Hedley’s wife, Tonya. She has one particular poignant monologue that brought immediate silence to the proceedings on the stage and in the audience as she speaks of why she would rather not bring another child into the world … a world that is mean spirited, hateful, impoverishing and could all too easily take the child’s father away either to prison or worse … to death. Stephen McKinley Henderson’s 60+ year old Elmore, the paramour to Ruby, is one slick fast-talking gambler with life. The audience can see it in his eyes and his jaunty movements, that is until he must kill or be killed. Then he is all business even if the man he may kill is half his age. It is Henderson who verbalizes the unspeakable words that set the final actions of the play into motion. Finally, Mister, as played in this performance by Jason Dirden, is one cocky hanger-on to Hedley, who heats up the final scene by egging Hedley on, when he could have cooled the situation.

The Terrace Theatre production has a minimum of costume changes, a single set, and some nicely rendered lighting. And yet, one does not come away feeling slighted. The work of Reggie Ray, the costume designer, is well done. There is an especially unexpected touch in one costume change for Lynda Gravatt who comes out in Act II in a flaming red dress and sings and dances. She is a stunning sight.

Written by August Wilson. Directed by Derrick Sanders. Design: David Gallo (set) Reggie Ray (costumes) Allen Lee Hughes (lights) Dwight Andrews (music)  Jill BC Duboff (sound) Joan Marcus (photography) Shari Silberglitt and Stephen Neverson (stage manager). Cast:  Jason Dirden or  John Earl Jelks, Lynda Gravatt, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Russell Hornsby,  Heather Alicia Simms, James A. Williams.

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June 16 - 24, 2007
Mrs. Packard
Reviewed by Brad Hathaway

Running time 2:25 - one intermission
A solidly produced view of a slice of little known history

Click here to buy the book

What kind of theater is “your thing?” Musicals? Comedies? Classics? Historical Dramas? If the later, you need to know about this short run of a new play being co-produced by The McCarter Theatre Center of Princeton, New Jersey and the Kennedy Center's Fund for New American Plays. The drama, by McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann, is one of those fascinating plays that recreate an historical event that you probably didn't know a thing about but which, once you've witnessed the play, becomes part of your knowledge base and your perception of our common past. In this instance, it is women's rights, American history, the development of mental health treatment and the influence of organized religions on society that are at issue. Your views on each is likely to be affected by spending an evening in the Terrace Theater on top of the Kennedy Center this month.

Storyline: This docu-drama follows Elizabeth Packard from the day in 1861 that her husband had her committed to an insane asylum because her religious beliefs ran counter to his. This was a failing he could not accept because he was a conservative Calvinist minister who had already lost a number of posts, he assumes because of the disrepute her attitudes brought on him.  It ends three years later when she finally wins her freedom after suffering the horrors of incarceration in squalid circumstances and the indignity of confrontations with officials who held that her rights had not been violated because, as a woman, she had none.

Emily Mann is probably best known among Potomac Region theatergoers for her script for Having Our Say, the charming adaptation of the book by the centenarian Delany sisters. Her interest in using the stage to explore historical themes can be seen in her other works: Execution of Justice which was drawn from trial transcripts of the assassin of San Francisco Mayor George Moscone and Councilman Harvey Milk, Still Life about the experience of an American serviceman who served in Vietnam and Greensboro (A Requiem) dealing with the murder of anti-Ku Klux Klan demonstrators in North Carolina. She seems to have a preference for subjects where she can take a strong position on one side of an issue. This may make for engaging theater. However, there is a feeling in Mrs. Packard that the views of the heroine's persecutors - her husband and her doctor - have been dismissed by the author as not worthy of dramatization. This is a pity, for it would be fascinating to understand just how their views matched their time in history. After all, they were probably the majority view of the time. Instead, Mann presents them in the hindsight of current views. The approach also robs Mrs. Packard of any credit for being forward thinking. We see the injustice but we don't see the tug of war that creates change in a society that at least aspires to openness and progress in the human condition.

As theater rather than as history, however, there are strengths here to be valued. Most notably, there is the performance of Kathryn Meisle as the ill-fated, strong-willed Mrs. Packard. The intelligence that shines from her eyes, the dignity that is signaled by her posture and the energy of her struggle dominates the evening. There are also good performances by John C. Vennema who has to deal with the one-dimensional role of Mrs. Packard's husband, and Dennis Parlato, who is at least given some soft edges to humanize the doctor who oversees Mrs. Packard's incarceration. The production is a hefty one with a set that you will probably guess is the work of Eugene Lee when you first see it. It has the mechanical, ironwork fencing and bridgework look of his most famous designs including Ragtime and Wicked, not to mention the main set for Saturday Night Live.

You may come away wanting to know even more, so we have included a link on this page for ordering a reprint of one of Mrs. Packard's own volumes, her "Modern Persecution or Insane Asylums Unveiled - Volume II" which picks up where the play ends. It is a heavy, hefty tome. It runs some 422 pages covering 54 chapters with headings like "My Release on a Writ of Habeas Corpus," "Return to my Home - Married Woman as Slave," "Dangerous to be a Married Woman in Illinois!" and "The Imputation of Insanity a Barrier to Human Progress," but it fills in many of the questions that may be raised in the inevitable post-show discussions among those who adjourn from theater to restaurant, cafe, pub, bar or living room to thrash out just what has come before.

Written and directed by Emily Mann. Fight direction by Rick Sordelet. Movement direction by Peter Cucci. Design: Eugene Lee (set) Jennifer von Mayrhauser (costumes) Jeff Croiter (lights) Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen (incidental music and sound) T. Charles Erickson (photography) Cheryl Mintz (stage manager). Cast: Julie Boyd, Jeff Brooks, Robin Chadwick, Georgine Hall, Kathryn Meisle, Dennis Parlato, Molly Regan, Fiana Toibin, John C. Vennema.

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July 5 - 23, 2006
The Complete History of America (abridged)

Running time 2:05 - one intermission
t A Potomac Stages Pick for six hundred years of laughs compressed into two hours
Click here to buy the script
Click here to buy the DVD

The Reduced Shakespeare Company has made an industry of generating comic delights from heavy material. Their best known is their first, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged). That is the reason for the company's name, which might lead some to think they are British. Nope. They started in California as a San Francisco street theater-type troupe. In 1993, six years after the Shakespeare piece, they added this comic survey of American history. Since then, they have added works on the Bible, western civilization as a musical, the great books and even that most hallowed of topics, the complete Hollywood. The History of America has been made available for license for professional and community theaters to perform (click here to read our review of the show as performed by Wayside Theater last year), but it is at its funniest when performed by the company that created it. Here, two of the three originators perform along with one completely successful replacement.

Storyline: A cast of three assume all the roles in a survey of the topic from before Amerigo Vespucci to the Presidents Bush. They try to milk the iconographic stories of the United States for humor and to use the humor to comment on the gap between America's promise and her success.

The laughs begin even before the audience realizes they are seeing the show. The pre-show "turn off your cell phones" announcement includes such gems as "management wishes to remind you that this theater is equipped to provide assistance to the hearing impaired. If you or a member of your party is hearing ... paired ... eeze ... tact ... nush ... for more ... nkyou." This sort of foolishness continues non-stop for the next two hours. Overheard from a member of the audience in the elevator after the show: "Some of it is marginal, but, if you're already laughing, you can't stop." That is really the key, for the laughter is not only contagious, it has a momentum all its own. It captures you from the first moment and hardly lets you take a breath. Amazingly, the fifteen minute intermission doesn't seem to interrupt the pace. By that time, the audience not only appreciates the opportunity to draw a few unencumbered breaths, they are anxious to continue the enjoyment.

Reed Martin, with his shaved head and imposing presence seems to lead the troupe, while curly headed Austin Tichenor takes the audience into his confidence attempting to explain some of what is transpiring. They are joined by Dominic Conti, a tall and lanky comedian who fits right into the feeling of the piece. Together they throw a seemingly inexhaustible supply of one-liners at the audience in a survey sufficiently structured to give the evening a flow. That flow seems to jump just a bit when intermission separates the Civil War and World War I as if nothing transpired in the intervening half century. But it is a trap. The trio admit the gap, saying that nothing much happened in that period that was very funny, which they demonstrate . . . backwards.

The show is the construction of the team itself. There is no credit for a director or for any designers. Not even lighting is credited, although lighting effects are used throughout. The set, such as it is, consists of an early American flag (thirteen stars) and a panel depiction of the span from Amerigo Vespucci's time to our own. The three cast members with just a few props and costume changes (mostly just hats) create all the effects the humor needs.

Written by Adam Long, Reed Martin and Austin Tichenor. Cast: Dominic Conti, Reed Martin, Austin Tichenor.

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June 17 - 25, 2006

Running time 1:30 - no intermission
An examination of issues surrounding euthanasia

Click here to buy the script

New play programs make important contributions to the art of theater and obviously involve taking some risks. Sometimes that process results in discoveries for audiences that can be fascinating, scintillating and memorable. Sometimes, as here, they don't. This new play, produced with the assistance of the Center's Fund for New American Plays, and supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, is by a novelist and playwright of note who has a PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction to his credit. This all would justify high hopes. What is more, it deals with a cutting edge topic about the value of life, but it does so in an astonishingly lifeless way. It is presented by one of the premiere regional theater companies in the country with such earnestness that it is difficult to determine if its humorlessness is a result of the writing or of the directing. The thoughtful and effective contributions of the design team give the performers and the script every advantage, but can't, and shouldn't be expected to compensate for the lack of life in the material and its delivery.

Storyline: The current wife, a former wife and the son of a stroke victim debate ending his life now that he is in a "permanent vegetative state." Has his life already ended? What claim to their devotion or care does he retain? What duty do they owe to him? Who has the right to make a continue-or-terminate decision and just what does either option mean? The debate continues as they administer potentially lethal doses of morphine and wait for the expected results.

New York writer Don DeLillo has selected a topic that is full of theatrical potential, but has constricted the view so tightly that very little of that potential is explored. The "permanent vegetative state" of the stroke victim is a rather antiseptic non-state involving practically no inconveniences or requirements for care, and the people surrounding him have little obvious emotional connection to his life. His current wife has the most affectionate reminiscences to voice, but she seems fairly content to take a walk while his son and former wife do the deed. Neither of them seem to have either ethical or emotional claims on the remnant of his life. Left unexplored are issues such as the financial impact of continued care, legal matters including rights and responsibilities and the role of any of his pre-stroke decisions or views.

The victim is played by two actors - John Heard and Larry Kucharik. Heard plays the victim in flash backs. Flanking the main portion of the one-act play are prologue and epilogue scenes showing him confined to a wheel chair after a first stroke. Flashbacks during the center section of the play show him before that first stroke. Kucharik has the physically demanding task of being the victim "in extremis." He sits in his wheel chair, slumped over completely "vegetative" with no reactions and, of course, no lines to deliver.

Among the still-living are Penelope Walker who is a fairly warm presence as the current wife who seems incapable of coping with the matters at hand, and Louis Cancelmi and Martha Lavey who are colder and sharper as the more take-charge characters from the man's past. Most of the discussion of values that does take place is in their hands. They deliver their lines with an earnestness that is nearly devoid of human humor and sheds little light on just why they should care about the fate of the victim. Without that, how is the audience to care?

Written by Don DeLillo. Directed by Amy Morton. Produced by the Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Design: Loy Arcenas (set) Nan Cibula-Jenkins (costumes) J.R. Lederle (lights) Josh Schmidt (sound) Michael Brosilow (photography) Malcolm Ewen (stage manager). Cast: Louis Cancelmi, John Heard, Larry Kucharik, Martha Lavey, Penelope Walker.

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June 11 – 13, 2004
Letters from
Tennessee: A Distant Country
Called Youth

Reviewed June 11
Running time 1:25 with no intermission

Those who attended the Shakespeare Theatre's production of Five by Tenn in this same theater last April will enjoy this opportunity to enter into Mr. Williams' presence again. Then it was Jeremy Lawrence performing as Williams, using the author's own words from interviews and stage directions. Those encounters were interspersed among short plays by Williams. Here it is Richard Thomas performing selections from Williams' correspondence. There are no additional plays being offered, simply a chance to spend about an hour and a half with the author in a self revealing mood. The cumulative effect is to leave you feeling you know the man who produced the plays that the current Tennessee Williams Explored festival is presenting downstairs in the Eisenhower Theater.

Storyline: This bio-play was assembled from the letters that Tennessee Williams wrote to his family, friends and publishers and producers he hoped would buy his works.  The one-man show covers Williams' private and professional life from childhood through his early successes on Broadway.

Thomas is an engaging presence on stage and he succeeds in creating a convincing portrait of the playwright. He matures nicely over the course of the short evening from a young teenager to a young adult and he draws the audience along on the journey. At a few points he includes audience reactions in his delivery, stretching out a pause when a laugh on a line might obscure the following point. One segment has him sipping from a martini glass and his tongue seems both liberated and lubricated by the impact of the spirits. Thomas wisely avoids overdoing the effect.

Director Steve Lawson has Thomas moving back and forth between three music stands on which are the letters from which he reads. He keeps the pace of the performance almost excessively brisk. The three stands are in front of a projection screen on which are shown a collection of snapshots of Williams, his family and friends as well as a few production shots from his early plays. The selection of photographs seems rather random although they are apparently chronological, as are the letters. A photo of his mother comes on when he starts a letter to her but stays on during letters to others. At other times the screen is blank through numerous letters. There never seems to be a strong connection between the visuals and the text.

The program doesn't include a credit for either set design or sound design. The production could have used a set designer to give the stage a bit of depth and dramatic interest by varying the three podium areas and by masking some of the large screen which had plenty of blank space when a photo was projected and which gave the stage a naked feel when one was not. At a minimum, the area of the projections could have been cropped so that the projector which was suspended from the theater's ceiling would not block the view for patrons seated further back than row R. Credit should go, however, to the Terrace Theater's sound department for the marvelously natural reinforcement of Thomas' voice which carried nicely back to those in the rear rows.

Adapted and directed by Steve Lawson. Design: Martha Mountain (lights) Sandra Barrack (stage manager) Cast: Richard Thomas.

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August 27 - September 14, 2003
Nijinsky's Last Dance

Reviewed August 27
Running time 1 hour 30 minutes
For mature audiences - Nudity
Price range $25 - $30

Potomac Stages Pick

Returning to what had been a practically indelible theatrical memory can be hazardous - what if it isn’t as good as you remember? Not to worry! The magical collaboration of author, actor, director, choreographer, set, sound, costume and lighting designers which made the one-act experience of the life of a legendary dancer, the late Vaslav Nijinsky, one of the strongest single evenings in years of theatergoing has been recreated and the magic is still there. What is even more incredible, it doesn’t feel like a recreation at all. It feels as fresh and new as it did in 1998 in the smaller, more intimate space at Signature Theater where it earned Helen Hayes Awards for Outstanding Play, Outstanding Director, Outstanding Lighting Design and Outstanding Sound Design as well as drawing nominations for Outstanding Choreography and Outstanding Performance by an Actor. All of those nominees and winners, along with the egregiously overlooked other members of the original team who really did contribute outstanding costume design and a truly outstanding set design, are back to assure that the re-mounting of the production in the larger Terrace Theater of the Kennedy Center meets the standard of the original.

Storyline: This one-performer biographical play finds Vaslav Nijinsky, his mental instability having advanced to the point that he is confined to an asylum, recalling his life and career. That life started in 1888 in Kiev, Ukraine. At ten he was in the Imperial Ballet School in St. Petersburg. By twenty he was a star of Sergei Diaghilev’s famed Ballets Russes, virtually creating the concept of a celebrity male ballet dancer and crossing over into choreography, capturing world attention for himself and the company while premiering such now classic ballets as Debussy’s Afternoon of a Faun and Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and The Right of Spring. While pursuing the adulation of audiences in public, in private Nijinsky sought the adoration of a string of sexual partners without regard to gender. He was Diaghilev’s lover as well as that of his first patron Prince Lvov, he married and had two children and through it all he had a habit of engaging prostitutes.  At thirty he was in a mental institution.  

The more you know about Nijinsky’s life and his professional accomplishments, the more you get from the performance, but you needn’t know much more than the paragraph above to be fascinated by both the subject matter and the pure theatricality of the experience. Author Norman Allen provides all the information you need in the text without stopping the flow for an introductory speech. He has all the facts and people of the story flow directly from the mind of Nijinsky in a stream-of-consciousness experience that, while carefully structured to make sure important information is provided when needed, seems to spring directly from Nijinsky’s troubled mind.

Allen provides the words and the structure and actor Jeremy Davidson brings the character to intense life. The physicality of his performance is astonishing as he switches between Nijinsky and Nijinsky’s impressions of the people in his life including most memorably impresario Diaghilev. Under director Joe Calarco and choreographer Karma Camp, Davidson’s every movement flows from the immediately preceding movement and sets up the next. It is a part that must be danced but the magic is found in the fact that Davidson, playing an over-the-hill Nijinsky recalling his glory days, doesn’t show us Nijinsky dancing so much as he shows us Nijinsky being a dancer. It is a fine distinction but it is the secret to the effectiveness of the piece. It keeps this from being an impersonation and allows Davidson to create a fascinating, touching and troubled human being. As his Nijinsky conjures up the memories of those who touched his life, Davidson has the movements and postures to bring it all to life. Note the way in which he uses Diaghilev’s cane, astonishing when you realize that Davidson doesn’t actually have a cane - he’s just holding his hand and moving his body as if he did.

The design team has created a world in which Davidson’s Nijinsky shines like a jewel on display, every facet struck by a light, underlined by a sound, highlighted by pure space. Lou Stancari’s minimalist platform and light stanchion set is nearly nothing till brought to life by the other elements - and then it is perfect. Daniel McLean Wagner’s lighting design must have as many different settings as there are minutes in the play but every one of them is in service to the story being told and the world being created. David Maddox brings more than just some ballet music in at the right moment, he creates a sonic environment with everything from the ovations that waft over Nijinsky in his triumphs to the whispers of gossip, the cries and boos of an outraged public and the sound of cell doors slamming. The performance begins with sound, the rhythmic whisper of Nijinsky’s feet trudging to his cell. Anne Kennedy’s costume which comes off and then goes back on in layers, is perfect for the setting and the needs of the story. When it comes all the way off, the frontal nudity isn’t a shock or a ploy.

Written by Norman Allen. Directed by Joe Calarco. Choreographed by Karma Camp. Design: Lou Stancari (set) Anne Kennedy (costumes) David Maddox (sound) Daniel MacLean Wagner (lights) Carol Pratt (photography) Ronny Gunderson (stage manager). Cast: Jeremy Davidson.

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July 2 – 14, 2002
Greater Tuna

Reviewed July 2
Running time 1 hour 50 minutes
t Potomac Stages Pick

Very few live performances ever seem exactly the same two nights in a row. So how can these two gentle souls seem exactly the same two decades in a row? Joe Sears and Jaston Williams brought their affectionate portrait of life in the third smallest town in the Lone Star State to the Kennedy Center twenty years ago and they have brought the cast of twenty-some-odd characters (and odd is the operative word) back to renew our acquaintance many times in the original Greater Tuna, in the holiday themed A Tuna Christmas and the Fourth of July edition Red, White and Tuna. Well, Greater Tuna is back and it is as genuinely entertaining and downright funny as ever.

Storyline: A day in the life of small town Tuna, Texas. Nothing world shattering happens because nothing world shattering ever happens here. There’s the farm report on WKKK radio to set the scene, Bertha Bumiller is fixing breakfast for her children while trying to keep the eight dogs out of the house, Petey Fisk is delivering public service announcements for the humane society and the smut snatchers are working to get dirty words excised from the High School’s dictionaries.

The gimmick here is that Sears and Williams play all two dozen parts in as many different costumes but at an unhurried, relaxed and casual pace that belies the feverish activities that must take place hidden from view by the central set piece behind which they wander without a hint of hurry. In front of the set piece is a single floor model radio from which emerges some of the commentary the two began in the opening sequence of the morning radio report. But there is enough variety in the recorded bits, the entrances and exits off stage right and left as well as from behind the set that the only time it appears predictable is when a gag requires it.

Audience anticipation is a major factor in the humor. Even those who are making their first visit to Tuna, Texas, quickly size up the routine and can feel some of the punch lines a mile away. There is a satisfying feeling when the lines actually land, in part because they are just off kilter enough to be fresh. There is a feeling of topical humor although most of the barbs are the same as they were twenty years ago.

Sears and Wiliams along with their director Ed Howard have maintained this innocent slice of small town Americana in marvelous shape, making a visit to Tuna as fresh and fun as ever. The humor is often just shy of groan inducing but is always devoid of any sense of superiority or animosity. These guys love the characters they create and the people they are lampooning. They poke affectionate fun at themselves rather than standing aside criticizing and belittling their subjects. This is a put on, not a put down.

Written by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard. Design: Kevin Rupnik (set) Linda Fisher (costumes) Root Choyce (lights) Ken Huncovsky (sound). Cast: Joe Sears, Jaston Williams.