Nehal Joshi (left) and Eric Anderson in "Fly" at La Jolla Playhouse. Photo by Kevin Berne
La Jolla Playhouse's world-premiere production of "Fly," a musical adaptation of the much-told Peter Pan story, boasts dazzling choreography (by Andy Blankenbuehler and Stephanie Klemons), fanciful scenic design (by Anna Louizos), a Wendy to cheer for (Storm Lever) and of course feats of flying that while not exactly taking your breath away still make your eyes pop.
But "Fly" is all about the pirates.
In Rajiv Joseph's book for the show, Captain Hook (Eric Anderson) is not only the funniest character onstage, he's damned near the most sympathetic. I've had a lot of Peter Pan experience in my day, including revisiting the adventures in-depth while an MFA graduate student not that long ago, and I always thought of Hook as an irredeemable meanie. In "Fly," he's hapless and exasperated and -- here's the kicker -- sympathetic. He's already lost one hand, and after Wendy slices off the other, our loyalties are definitely divided. Besides Joseph's characterization, Anderson's portrayal of Hook is comic but complex. His false swagger and empty threats toward Peter are counterbalanced by his personal sad state of affairs, including not having a mother figure. He and his band of "cutthroats" in Neverland covet young Wendy for this role.
What's more, the most memorable numbers in the "Fly" score are those sung by Anderson or with his mates. Their "Howl at the Moon" chantey is surpassed only by Anderson's faux-ballad "I Miss My Hand," in which he gets a little singalong help from Nehal Joshi as Smee (also wonderful in this show).
The remainder of the score (music by Bill Sherman, lyrics by Kirsten Childs and Rajiv Joseph) runs together in sameness, very much overshadowed by the aerobatics, the kinetic dancing and the opulent set pieces (the mobile pirate ship is the best of these, with the Jolly Roger replaced by a Walter Payton No. 34 jersey).
In Joseph's script, Wendy is an only child (unlike in "Peter and Wendy" in which she has younger siblings) and the daughter of a widowed father. Soon after being swept away by Peter (Lincoln Clauss, an adequate leader of the Lost Boys), she becomes a daring warrior princess who faces up with little fear to not only Hook and his band but to Neverland's menacing and hungry Crocodile (Liisi LaFontaine, bringing to mind The Acid Queen from the Ken Russell "Tommy" movie). Storm Lever, who recently appeared on the Playhouse stage in "Summer: The Donna Summer Musical," has charisma to spare, and it's obvious that the protagonist of this Peter Pan telling is not Peter, but Wendy.
Nearly flying away with the whole show is Isabelle McCalla as the fairy Tink, swooping in and out of the action, delivering caustic remarks but also evincing the good heart of a Neverland sprite.
Jeffrey Seller, who as a producer has towering credits that include "Hamilton," "In the Heights" and "Rent," directs "Fly" as the spectacle that it is, but doesn't let the underlying story (about growing up) get away from him or his cast. Act Two is when the emotion of "Fly" sweeps through after a rousing but strictly surface-level opening act.
Not surprisingly, the costumes (by Paul Tazewell) are bold, bright and even bodacious -- Hook's coat is really more of a bathrobe. The flying sequences designed by Pichon Baldinu do not attempt to hide the technology that makes them happen, and that in itself is refreshing.
Right about now, Neverland seems like everyone's optimal escape. "Fly" takes you there with pizazz.
"Fly" runs through March 29 in La Jolla Playhouse's Mandell Weiss Theatre.
The goings-on beneath the white-rabbit hole at Lamb’s Players Theatre are as wildly whimsical as they are proudly nonsensical. In “Alice,” a musical adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” incongruity is 90 percent of the fun. While the sharpness of Carroll’s satirical sword may be missing from Elizabeth Swados’ 1980 creation for the stage, the fantastical elements and ingenious characters he created are delightfully intact.
This “Alice” is a relatively obscure work, best remembered perhaps for an early-‘80s production that starred Meryl Streep (yes, Meryl Streep) as children’s literature’s most famous heroine. It’s a strictly ensemble piece with all its actors, save the person playing Alice, filling multiple roles. Its musical score is all over the place, from Calypso to doo-wop, from pop-rock to shades of country, from a capella to the kind of jaunty group sings reminiscent of “Godspell.” At Lamb’s, by the way, a five-piece band led by Ian Brandon handles these divergent idioms with aplomb.
Familiarity with Carroll’s books is helpful, but only an appreciation for the unpredictable and a resistance to the need for explanation are required. “Alice” is all about the denizens of Wonderland that Alice (Megan Carmitchel) encounters underground. The strength of the Lamb’s production, directed and choreographed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth, is in those portrayals: Eileen Bowman as the Queen of Hearts and Humpty Dumpty; Geno Carr as Bill the Lizard, the Mock Turtle and a sobbing baby; Brian Mackey as the Mad Hatter; William BJ Robinson as the Cheshire Cat; Angela Chatelain Avila as the White Rabbit.
Also in the sprightly cast are Nancy Snow Carr, Caitie Grady, Jacob Caltrider, Erika Osuna and Fernando Vega, all of them returnees to the Lamb’s stage.
The first act basically mirrors Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” the second act the somewhat darker “Through the Looking Glass.” The set and projections by Michael McKeon are evocative of the storybooks, the costuming by Jemima Dutra more subtle than you might expect for an “Alice” production.
A definite highlight is Alice’s duel with the jabberwocky in Act Two, an impressive feat of onstage magic. Less dramatic but entertaining in its own right is the staging of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, with the cup and saucer settings strapped to the backs of actors who hunch over to serve as tables.
To some degree, there’s an anything-goes approach to the festivities that jibes with the bizarro nature of Wonderland, yet it can be wearying, especially when certain sequences (the Mock Turtle/Gryphon bit for one) overstay their welcomes. It helps to remember that one mini-adventure will be followed by another, and another, until the windup when we learn, alas, that it was all a dream.
The “It was all a dream” explanation of childhood fantasies (see “The Wizard of Oz” too) is disappointing when you invest yourself in a completely other world. It’s gratifying, however, that in “Alice” our heroine in the puff-sleeved dress seems to cling to her imagination and its occupants even after she’s awakened by her mother.
Maybe Wonderland is a real place after all.
(Review originally published in the San Diego Union-Tribune on 3/10/20.)
Left to right: Jacque Wilke, Christopher M. Williams and Shana Wride in "The Outsider." Photo by Aaron Rumley
"The Outsider" manages to be political without being partisan. That's a feat. "The Outsider" also manages to make politics funny. That's a feat as well, particularly in these grim days when the political spectrum is downright depressing.
Paul Slade Smith's comedy adopts the premise that a timid, strictly behind-the-scenes lieutenant governor of an unspecified state is suddenly thrust into the No. 1 job after the governor resigns over an illicit sexual tryst (with a beauty pageant runner-up yet). To say that Lt. Gov. Ned Newley is reluctant and unprepared to take over is the play's grand understatement. But things change in a major way when an opportunistic and less-than-ethical political consultant flies in from the big city determined to not only mold Ned into a governor but into a political superstar. The catch: Ned is to be fashioned and presented as something between a rube and an "average guy" whose appeal is that he knows nothing at all about government.
North Coast Repertory Theatre is staging the West Coast premiere of Smith's 2018 two-acter, and it's funnier than even its premise may sound. Sure, there are a couple of dead spots in the storytelling here and there, but for the most part "The Outsider" is clever and blessed with some howling visual bits (best of all the live-TV interview with Ned and his dingbat secretary -- more on her in a minute -- that closes the first act).
Director David Ellenstein's got a marvelous cast, including North Coast Rep newcomer John Seibert, who makes a neurotic but likable Ned. Christopher M. Williams is sympathetically harried as Ned's able chief of staff David, who shudders at the shameless devices of the lauded political wonk Arthur Vance (Louis Lotorto, overplaying just a bit). Shana Wride is authoritative and wry as a pollster, Natalie Storrs sharp as a conscience-ridden newscaster, and Max Macke very good as a laconic TV cameraman who it turns out has a lot to say.
But this production belongs to Jacque Wilke, whose clueless but irresistibly perky Louise (aptly nicknamed Lulu) becomes the political consultant's prize project far and above what Ned Newley might have been. Wilke is a wonder to watch throughout, whether she's spouting ludicrous sentiments, demonstrating all that she doesn't know about working in an office, jockeying for time on camera, following Vance's choreographed color-coded-card responses to the reporter's questions, or just looking sweet and big eyed and happily vacant. She's costumed to look more than a little like Sarah Palin in Act 2, though Palin at her most energetic couldn't keep up with Lulu.
"The Outsider" also has a simple but admirable point to make about government and those who go in for governing, and it isn't made with a heavy hand. All the better for a comedy that for a couple of hours might make you forget what the insiders are up to.
"The Outsider" runs through March 22 at North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach.
Andrea Agosto (left) and August Forman in "A Kind Of Weather." Photo by Simpatika
Kid (August Forman) is trans and in transition in more ways than one. Gender and career identity are crystallizing. Romance (with the editor of Kid's book, Rose (played with pluck by Andrea Agosto) is blooming, albeit uneasily. Then comes the capper: Kid's father (Andrew Oswald) shows up out of a clear blue sky, disoriented and despondent and asking to crash indefinitely. The skies above Flatbush, Brooklyn, circa 2012, are darkening in Sylvan Oswald's "A Kind Of Weather," having its world premiere at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
This production directed by Bea Basso is undeniably absorbing from start to finish 90 minutes later. Oswald has a talent for literate but unpretentious language, and the sorts of interpersonal conflicts dramatized in "A Kind Of Weather" need not be confined to the specific crises of its characters. Many of us know too well the slings and arrows of relationships with estranged parents or with potential romantic partners. Much to its credit too is the production's five-person ensemble, led by Forman, who fashions a sincerely vulnerable but forthright portrayal of Kid while anchoring the play's disparate emotive directions. Oswald, a recent honoree of the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle for his performance last year in "The Hour of Great Mercy," also at Diversionary, conveys with subtlety all of Grey's tormented complications (his unfaithfulness to his wife, his infatuation with his lover, his guilt over his wife's subsequent sudden death, his conflict over the transition of his daughter, now son). Agosto's Rose when not in flirtation mode, is the story's blunt, sensible voice.
The messaging of the play is clear and dynamic enough, though the story's presentation takes many divergent theatrical turns. Kid, Grey, Rose and Janice, Grey's lover (played with dignity by Marci Anne Wuebben) recurringly address the audience directly in monologue, only to shift back into the rhythm of a scene. Kid and Rose's tense romancing gives way on a couple of occasions to MGM-big-screen fantasy sequences. All characters break into a stagy musical number at one point. In the execution of these strategies, the play's thoughtful tone persists, but I actually found myself being taken out of the story more than once to the point where I felt I was watching not people, but characters. A constant musical hum in the background was also distracting.
Kid's plight and, at the same time, Forman's performance as Kid, kept me involved on all levels, weathering if you will the production's overreaching for ingenuity.
"A Kind Of Weather" is the first in a trilogy of what Diversionary Theatre is calling its "Gender Series." Next up will be Miranda Rose Hall's "Plot Points In Our Sexual Development," beginning March 26.
"A Kind Of Weather" runs through March 8 at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights.
Rami Margron (left) and Opal Alladin in "Hurricane Diane." Photo by Jim Cox
There are two ways to look at Madeleine George's "Hurricane Diane": one, as a keenly crafted commentary on the ecological and environmental neglect we've done to our planet and the need for enlightened, responsible solutions -- all wrapped in a fantastical comedy; the other, as an absurdist spoof of Greek mythology, suburban-housewife angst and upward mobility -- played for laughs at full-throated volume.
As with most things, the truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but "Hurricane Diane" lists heavily toward the latter interpretation. Its West Coast premiere inside the Old Globe's cozy Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre seems to opt for freeze-frame one-liners and comic physicality over the imparting of any sobering messages. Climate-change backdrop or not, there's more "Real Housewives of New Jersey" here than "An Inconvenient Truth."
If opening night at the White was any indication, the choice to go this route, whether dictated by George's script or James Vasquez's diretion, was a wise one. Throughout all the sight gags and uttered innuendo, a significant number of audience members could be heard exhorting the characters and "Yessing!" their approval. Whether "Hurricane Diane's" messaging sank in over the 90 minutes is an open question.
Though not for me.
In spite of the lecturing from the main character, Greek god Dionysus-turned-butch-gardener Diane, about permaculture and ecosystemming, what struck and stayed with me were the comic turns of the five actors onstage. Frankly, least of all that of Rami Margron as Diane, who strutted and raged but didn't convincingly portray an otherworldly empowered seductress.
The story finds Diane, in her would-be seduction of these unhappy, wine-sipping housewives, scheming to recruit them as acolytes and in the process reinvigorate the neglected physical world. One at a time she pursues them: Beth (Jennifer Paredes), a decidedly unhappy sort; Renee (Opal Alladin), editor of HGTV Magazine and openly bisexual; Carol (Liz Wisan), a smart but materialistic businesswoman; and Pam (Jenn Harris), who dresses sexy and cracks wise like few have ever cracked wise. All are mired in unfulfilling marriages except poor Beth, who's already been abandoned in hers.
Diane's seductions are not very artful, yet all but one succeeds -- the details of that I won't spoil, for the circumstances constitute the most dramatic and spectacular sequence of the show.
The housewife actors (and yes, this is set in New Jersey) give it their absolute all, especially Harris in the juiciest role of Pam. Wisan is, like her character, more subtle and much more interesting. Alladin and Paredes blossom fully late in the going when they've become Diane's acolytes, physically and sartorially. How you'll feel about the musical numbers they perform is anyone's guess.
Bottom line: Greek mythology was never like this.
"Hurricane Diane" runs through March 8 in the Old Globe's Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in Balboa Park.
Miguel Gongora Jr. and Heather Warren in "Going To A Place Where You Already Are." Photo by Daren Scott
While undergoing an MRI to diagnose chronic back pain, Roberta goes into shock. When she is again aware of the world around her, that world is unlike any she’s ever seen, heard or felt. The brights are brighter. The tiniest sounds echo with warmth, comfort, familiarity. She moves in a soft, slow parade of one, scarcely aware of her physicality.
Roberta is … in heaven?
Bekah Brunstetter is hardly the first playwright undaunted enough to confront death and immortality, nor is her one-act drama “Going To A Place Where You Already Are” the first time she’s done so. Her poignant “Be A Good Little Widow” at the Old Globe seven years ago in its way tackled these same eternal questions. But then as now, Brunstetter is intuitive enough to create relatably human characters who ache to answer the unanswerable yet ultimately rely on each other for inner peace.
OnStage Playhouse’s production of “Going To A Place Where You Already Are,” smartly directed by Hannah Logan, addresses its inscrutable subject with tenderness and humor. Prior to her mid-MRI “transporting,” from which she does return to consciousness, Roberta (Jody Catlin) had told her husband of nearly 30 years, Joe (Richard Rivera): “I don’t trust strangers. Even God.” Joe is an equally avowed “dust to dust” atheist who will dismiss Roberta’s account of having gone “to another place” with knowing physiological explanations.
This is the one incongruity in Brunstetter’s otherwise seamless script: Wouldn’t Joe, who adores Roberta, humor her, at least in words, in spite of his dyed-in-the-wool disbelief?
Roberta’s MRI reveals that her body is filled with deadly tumors. Her newly embraced faith in another world is deepened by more dramatized glimpses of it, and of someone already there who’s near and dear to her past. At the same time, Joe’s staunch skepticism becomes rooted in his determination to not lose forever his beloved spouse.
Integrated into Roberta and Joe’s plight is the presence, initially long-distance and briefly in person, of his estranged, extremely neurotic granddaughter Ellie (Heather Warren). Even before Ellie finds herself unable to process Roberta’s fate, she is berating herself as a terrible person. Jonas (Miguel Gongora Jr.), the man she’s just slept with, is in a wheelchair and Ellie is convinced she’ll be uncomfortable and embarrassed if a relationship leads to their being together in public.
The Ellie/Jonas dynamic is more distraction from than adjunct to the urgency of Roberta’s and Joe’s tests of faith and love. Patrick Mayuyu’s appearances as an unseen, wonder-working angel, however, are charming and effective.
“Going To A Place Where You Already Are” is Joe and Roberta’s story, and at OnStage they become everyone’s grandparents. For all his scoffing, Rivera’s Joe is ever devoted to Roberta, and we admire him for it. Catlin’s truly lovely performance transcends what might be for some the unsettling inquiries of the play. If Roberta has glimpsed “the other side,” her joy, as embodied by Catlin, is infectious.
Timothy L. Cabal and Nancy Ross in "Red Bike." Photo courtesy of Moxie Theatre
My first bicycle was a red one, and while I had my share of adventures with it, I never experienced a ride as wild as the one the 11-year-old kid (played concurrently by two actors) in Moxie Theatre's production of "Red Bike" does. Caridad Svich's 11-year-old (portrayed by Timothy L. Cabal and Nancy Ross) learns more about realities and priorities -- in other words, about life -- in one fateful ride than I did through all the years until I traded a bike for my first car. Svich's play is a non-linear, experiential (and some might say experimental) narrative that creates the illusion that this adolescent is learning on the fly and we're along for the ride so to speak.
As Svich, a grad of UCSD's MFA program, explained in her director's note for the Moxie production, "Time is flexible" in "Red Bike." The past, present and imagined future converge, sometimes it seems with the abruptness of screeching coaster brakes. At the same time, the story's one character is in the process of confronting fears, examining the physical and metaphorical constraints of small-town life, and coming to terms -- to the extent that an 11-year-old can -- with questions of identity.
It requires suspension of disbelief to accept that anyone of 11 years old would entertain such philosophizing and would throughout the 90-minute play give voice to some of the intellectually sophisticated insights accrued during. That's not asking too much. "Red Bike" speaks to the children in all of us as it recalls the children we once were: wide-eyed, in physical and emotional transition, and dwarfed by the convolutions of our world.
Still, it's the physicality of this production, admirably directed by Lisa Berger, that is so imposing. Cabal and Ross run, flit, leap, climb, jump, improvise pedaling and much more in twin gymnastic performances upon Alondra Velez's skateboard ramp of a set. They hide well the exhaustion that anyone might feel from such rigor.
It's not the non-linear nature of "Red Bike," however that renders this production wearying. What is decreed and derided and acknowledged in an hour and a half could have been decreed and derided and acknowledged in about 45 minutes, perhaps less. Beyond that your inquiring mind is apt to wander, even as you wonder at Cabal and Ross' endurance.
"Red Bike" runs through Feb. 16 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
Kerry Meads (left) and Deborah Gilmour Smyth (both in foreground) in "Babette's Feast." Photo by Ken Jacques
The redemptive power of an exquisite, meticulously prepared meal has been demonstrated on many occasions in narrative storytelling, perhaps no more sublimely than in the 1958 short story by Karen Blixen (aka Isak Dinesen) "Babette's Feast." The French civil war refugee who has become housekeeper and cook to a pair of devout spinster sisters in 19th-century Norway is the magician behind the meal. The very dishes that she prepared when she was once head chef at Paris' Cafe Anglais before fleeing have the effect of resolving grievances and reconciling past and present.
How the story of "Babette's Feast" gets to this titular moment is the dramatic arc of Abigail Killeen's play based on the original short story and adapted by Rose Courtney. ("Babette's Feast" previously, and more famously, was adapted into a 1987 Danish movie starring Stephane Audran that would win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.)
Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado is staging the West Coast premiere of Killeen's play, with the company's Robert Smyth directing. As Smyth explained to the audience prior to a recent performance, "Babette's Feast" is "story theater" in which the actors narrate the plot even as they inhabit one or multiple characters. This is not an unusual theatrical device, but it's not a favorite of mine as it tends to make a production highly expository in nature and, to me, sometimes static.
That aside, the Lamb's production is eloquent, soothing and quite beautifully mounted, with music compiled and directed (and some of it composed) by Deborah Gilmour Smyth (who also performs as the spinster sister Philippa) and performed onstage by cellist Diana Elledge. The music, in fact, is the piece de resistance of the play: the operatic duets, in particular, between Caitie Grady and Charles Evans Jr. are spellbinding.
"Babette's Feast" is told in two time periods: the past, when young Philippa (Grady) and sister Martine (Rachael VanWormer), daughters of a strictly devout dean (Jason Heil), are being courted by dashing suitors (Evans as an opera star and Ross Hellwig as a military man). For different reasons, the romances are not realized to fruition, and when we catch up with Philippa and Martine (in later years played by Gilmour Smyth and Kerry Meads) all they seem to have left is their piety and good works in the little village of Berlevag. When Babette (Yolanda Marie Franklin) turns up, having been sent to them by the aforementioned -- also older -- opera star, the journey to reconciliations and redemptions begins in earnest.
Almost everyone in the cast is obliged to adopt the utmost sincerity and seriousness on the way to Babette's grand repast. Almost, because Omri Schein, a familiar comic performer on several San Diego theater stages each year, breaks up the tension and breaks up the audience too with his dead stares and cross-dressing.
At an economical 90 minutes in length, Lamb's' "Babette's Feast" escapes over-ruminating without losing its messaging. The live music, the vocals of Grady and Evans, Jemima Dutra's period costumes and reminders that anything is possible on the other side, where paradise awaits, combine for a sumptuous, heartening evening or matinee on Coronado Island.
"Babette's Feast" runs through Feb. 16 at Lamb's Players Theatre in Coronado.
Foreground: Manny Fernandes (left) and Edward Chen in "The Great Leap." Karli Cadel Photography
As was demonstrated in La Jolla Playhouse's production last fall of Lauren Yee's "Cambodian Rock Band," the extraordinarily gifted playwright, an MFA graduate of UCSD, possesses the ability to confront intricate political issues by humanizing in startling and intimate ways those in their sphere of influence. Her characters are genuine and vulnerable, her dialogue sharp and incisive.
Yee's "The Great Leap" was first heard locally two years ago in a Powers New Voices Festival reading at the Old Globe. It premiered shortly after at the Ricketson Theatre in Denver and later in 2018 appeared Off Broadway. Its arrival at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town is noteworthy and the production itself, it turns out, reason for celebration. "The Great Leap" is a nuanced and cerebral work that at Cygnet under Rob Lutfy's direction receives an exquisite staging.
The play's title is a reference to the so-called "Great Leap Forward," the People's Republic of China's socioeconomic campaign to embed a Communist society in the late '50s/early '60s. Yee's fictional story, however, begins in 1971 when a visiting American college basketball coach boasts that no Chinese team would ever beat one from the USA. This hubris has ridden the passage of time to 1989, the year of the play's principal setting (and a benchmark in China's recent history), when that same coach (Manny Fernandes) is invited to return to China with his struggling (an 8-20 won/less record) University of San Francisco basketball team to play a squad from the University of Beijing. Enter 17-year-old Manford Lum (Scott Keiji Takeda), a Chinatown hoops legend who begs coach Saul to add him to his roster. The third key figure is Wen Chang (Edward Chen), whose friendship Saul cultivated while visiting China the first time and who at his pushy-American urging became a basketball coach himself. He is the coach of the team that Saul's boys will confront.
What secrets await revealing both on American and Chinese soil are central to the soul and backbone of "The Great Leap," which it should be said is only nominally about basketball (though the game carries the story and furnishes metaphorical reminders throughout its telling). Without giving away more than I should, "The Great Leap" is about family, about personal accountability and seizing opportunities, about how loving from afar is sometimes the best that one can do, and about courage. The last 10 minutes of the play will -- and should -- leave you breathless.
Chen is remarkable as the play's most conflicted character, a man in whom to some extent all the story's internal strife resides. Fernandes, who is a Cygnet resident artist, gets the plum job of spewing coach-speak profanity, and his green-and-gold USF garb gives him the appearance of a gruff but likable toon. The passion and impatience of youth are personified ably in Takeda's Manford, slight but lionhearted.
"The Great Leap" literally plays out on a basketball court of a stage designed by Yi-Chien Lee. Projections by Blake McCarty carry us back and forth in time, from here to there in history, from a Bay Area gym to Tiananmen Square.
The first unmissable production of 2020 on San Diego stages, "The Great Leap" is urgent, profoundly felt theater.
"The Great Leap" runs through Feb. 16 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
Steven Anthony Jones and Amari Cheatom (foreground) in "Jitney." Photo by Joan Marcus
The daunting struggles for survival and personal dignity reside in Jim Becker's gypsy cab station. The year is 1977, the place Pittsburgh's embattled Hill District. The play is "Jitney," the first work written in the late August Wilson's "Pittsburgh Cycle" though the latest chronologically of the 10. As staged at the Old Globe Theatre and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson, it's a penetrating, hang-on-every-word drama that touches sparks with every interpersonal conflagration.
The bracing intensity of the play is heightened by the richness of its principal characters: old Becker himself (Steven Anthony Jones), whose rules are posted on a wall in the ramshackle garage and whose iron fist is softened by a practically paternal sensitivity to those in his employ, however flawed; Turnbo (Ray Anthony Thomas), an old gossip with a hot head and a weary but resignedly workmanlike way of doing his job -- taxiing fares that the name cab companies won't accommodate; Youngblood (Amari Cheatom), whose very name defines his youth, impetuosity and sometimes reckless bravado; Fielding (Anthony Chisholm), whose alcoholism makes driving for Becker at best a day-to-day proposition. He's an old soul more comfortable reminiscing about his days as a suit-maker for Billy Eckstine and Count Basie; and Booster (Francois Battiste), Becker's 39-year-old son, who is released from prison after serving 20 years for killing his girlfriend and who shows up at his father's door -- the father whose heart he shattered and who never visited him in the pen.
"Jitney" hinges on two ominous and complex conflicts: the bitter and unexpected reuniting of Becker and his son, and the prospect that the garage, out of which Becker's car service operates, will be shuttered to make way for a vaguely promised redevelopment project. But the rumblings of this play are woven in, out of, and in between the crisis points and realized in a series of conversations, revelations and showdowns (including one with a heavily breathing Turnbo aiming a gun at stiffly defiant Youngblood).
The beauty of "Jitney" is that neither its storytelling nor its characters is without tenderness. For all their flareups and foibles, the men of Becker's car service care about each other and definitely return the affection their boss holds for them. Youngblood, too, is in his swaggering way trying to make a life for the mother of his child (Nija Okoro) and their two-year-old son.
There is no tenderness between Becker and Booster. Just the searing flame of anger and the pain of disappointment and loss. Their faceoffs in the garage are fierce with tension. Anything could happen.
Santiago-Hudson directs with a palpable appreciation for Wilson's words and affords his cast room to explore their characterizations, as if moment by moment. The Globe production incorporates atmospheric original music by Bill Sims Jr. in transitioning between scenes, with the riffing notes a striking parallel to the riffing being voiced onstage and creating a jazzy tableau beneath Jane Cox's lighting. The set by David Gallo is meticulous and funkily shopworn, with even the suggestion of one of the old jitney automobiles behind musty window glass.
August Wilson's legacy at the Old Globe is a well-established one. "The Piano Lesson," "Two Trains Running" and "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" each premiered at the Balboa Park theater. "Jitney," first produced in Pittsburgh, did not begin at the Globe. But its arrival four decades later only burnishes that legacy.
"Jitney" runs through Feb. 16 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat