“I’m going to kill myself, Mama.”
Thelma doesn’t believe it at first, but her matter-of-fact daughter, Jessie, isn’t kidding. She wants to die. She plans to die, on this exact Saturday night. It’s inevitable and unstoppable.
Marsha Norman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning ’night, Mother, onstage at ion theatre in Hillcrest, is an anguished, penetrating battle of wills between two women growing more and more desperate as each ominous minute after Jessie’s suicidal proclamation passes. Yolanda Franklin (as Jessie) and Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson (as Thelma) are entirely captivating in this one-act directed by ion’s Glenn Paris. In the tight confines of the theater’s black box space, you are immersed in Jessie’s overwhelming despondency (she has given up on life, whether her mother likes it or not) and in intimate proximity to Thelma’s fears and recriminations. But so deadly tense is the atmosphere created by Paris’ directorial hand and by Franklin’s and especially Thompson’s performances that you never know when to brace yourself for the shock of resolution.
’night, Mother is sad yet unignorable.
You must have patience with Moxie Theatre’s production of Alice Childress’ Trouble in Mind, directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg. If you do, you will be rewarded. Childress’ 1955 play about how ingrained racism was in the American theater is getting renewed attention, and deservedly so. But its first act, occupied with a tense rehearsal of a flawed play called Chaos in Belleville, is full of fits and starts while half the cast sits at a table, observing. As a result, it’s low on energy, even with the sparkling Cashae Monya (so memorable in Moxie’s Crumbs from the Table of Joy last year) in a standout supporting role.
Then comes the second act. Emotions that had been simmering before intermission come mightily to the fore. The war of wills between veteran black actress Wiletta Mayer (Monique Gaffney) and the pompous white director Al Manners (Ruff Yeager) is front and center, with the exclusionary treatment of African-Americans in the theater world their battleground. No easy answer is proffered. Childress famously refused to give her play a “happy ending.” Still, self-respect wins out, and that’s a victory worth witnessing.
Christmas Eve,1864 is the setting for Paula Vogel’s A Civil War Christmas, onstage at Diversionary Theatre in University Heights through Jan. 3. When stacked up against most of the holiday-oriented fluff in San Diego theaters this month, this talky musical that originally premiered in 2008 is intellectually rigorous. But with the cast of nine on a bare stage, seated much of the time with open books containing the script in their possession, A Civil War Christmas for all its gravitas is in essence a two-hour staged reading, with music.
Now there’s something to be said for that music, with not only the cast members but the sonorous Encore Vocal Ensemble behind the stage and a pianist and fiddler handling live accompaniment. The expected Christmas carols notwithstanding, the songs from the Civil War era that evoke the horrors of the war, the plight of the freed slaves and the desperate mood of the nation divided are rendered with spirit and solemnity. When the music stops to tell the various intertwining stories of this night before Christmas in 1864, the production flags. There are too many characters and subplots, for one thing, and for another some in the cast rely too heavily upon the script they’re holding. Others, it should be said, seem completely at ease. Taylor Henderson, as one of the freed slaves, sings beautifully and brings gentleness to the wartime atmosphere. Cashae Monya succeeds in multiple roles, including that of a child lost in Washington, D.C. Skyler Syllivan has the stature and projects the dignity of President Lincoln.
A Civil War Christmas would benefit from more animation on stage than merely actors sitting down, standing up, then sitting down again. What’s more, revisiting this important time in American history requires a you-are-there sensation that goes beyond the songs of the time and the period clothing. Limited as the Diversionary space is, screen projections could have amped up the drama. Or something as simple as a map of the territory along either side of the Potomac River, a symbolic and very real dividing line, might have more vividly taken us back to a critical time in our history.
Sunset Park is a neighborhood in Brooklyn, but it also sounds like the name of a nursing home, doesn’t it? A place to spend the sunset years of one’s evaporating life? This analogy doesn’t come out of a clear blue sky. Marley Sims’ and Elliot Shoenman’s play Sunset Park finds two self-involved adult children, Carol and Roger, wrangling over what to do with their elderly mother, Evelyn, and the old apartment she’s living in that could be an investment coup for them. And in a flashback that parallels the principal story, the young Evelyn and her blue-collar husband are struggling to ease his sick and aging crank of a father into a seniors facility.
Sounds like a scream. But Sunset Park is written as a comedy, albeit with serious undertones. A current production of the play at Scripps Ranch Theatre under the direction of Eric Poppick lays the comedy on thick, especially in the first act. It isn’t consistently successful. Carm Greco, apparently channeling Mama Sophia from “The Golden Girls,” overplays her hand, and, like Brenda Adelman as Carol, beats the New Yawk inflections and mannerisms to death. Charles Peters is more measured and convincing as well-to-do son Roger, and – in the parallel story – Kristin Woodburn (as young Evelyn), David Ryan Gutierrez (as her husband Benny) and Haig Koshkarian (playing the dying father in law) accredit themselves well.
The revelations of Act 2 bring gravitas to the proceedings, though even when Evelyn recounts the pain of coping with a deteriorating, abusive inlaw, followed by the sudden death of her husband at only 42 years old, you still get the feeling that Carol and Roger would choose a “home” for their mother over too much inconvenience. Co-playwrights Sims and Shoenman may be best known for their “Home Improvement” TV scripts, a fact that makes the sensitivity of this play more impressive when compared to that Tim Allen nonsense. In other words, Sunset Park does address difficult and sadly all-too-relevant issues in American family life, and generally speaking, it does so thoughtfully. At Scripps Ranch Theatre, the execution isn’t always there, but the spirit is willing and the realities are unapologetic.
La Jolla Playhouse is getting a jump on its biennial Without Walls Festival (coming up Oct. 9-11) with a presentation of Liz Lerman’s dance-theater piece Healing Wars. In the spirit of the site-specific WoW Festival, Healing Wars allows audiences backstage before the show to encounter the play’s cast in moving (in both senses of the word) tableaux that evoke Lerman’s trenchant messages about the scars that war inflicts on those who fight it and the healing that sometimes never follows.
This solemn multidisciplinary production melds the Civil War and our more recent conflicts in the Middle East with equal fervor and tenderness. Exposition is entwined in balletic choreography conceived by Lerman and Keith Thompson. The cast of eight, portraying figures from both time periods, includes Paul Hurley, a Navy veteran fitted with a prosthetic leg. Healing Wars weaves in and out of parallel wars and aftermaths, perhaps raising too many talking points – pain, medicine, physical scars, emotional scars, PTSD, the horror and senselessness of war, the indiscriminate specter of death. But Healing Wars’ evocative period music, David Israel Reynoso’s scenic and costume design, and the sensitivity of its dance sequences, which speak more eloquently than words, are equally artful and powerful.
Paula Vogel’s Indecent stokes the emotional fires on multiple levels, not the least of which is sheer anger: Anger over the quashing of freedom of artistic expression. Anger about intolerance and bigotry. Anger that a gifted Yiddish playwright’s spirit was just about broken, that dark unrelenting forces sought to subjugate, to erase, the Jewish culture. Yet Vogel’s one-act play with music, a co-production between Yale Repertory Theatre and La Jolla Playhouse, is constructed upon quiet, thoughtful reflection more than anger. It’s a sad, sensitive work created for the stage by Vogel and by director Rebecca Taichman that even in that sadness never loses sight of the resolve and life force of the Jewish people.
Right away, the narrative tells us that Indecent is a play about a play: Sholem Asch’s 1906 God of Vengeance, which affected and challenged audiences in Europe before coming to America and ultimately, in 1923, to Broadway where it was shut down and its cast charged with obscenity. The “obscenity”: the depiction of a lesbian relationship, a Jewish brothel and the renunciation and ill treatment of the Torah. Indecent’s seven-person ensemble (plus three musicians, also immersed in the action) brings to life the staging of God of Vengeance, both in a Polish attic and on the (ahem) Great White Way. Yet in spite of the elaborate staging of and absorption in the lesbian lovers’ “Rain Scene” in God of Vengeance, it is Indecent’s offstage stories – those of embattled playwright Asch (Max Gordon Moore), of two actresses (Katrina Lenk and Adina Verson) in love, of immigrant stage manager Lemml (Richard Topol), the soul and conscience of the play – that reverberate.
Each cast member plays multiple roles, which can be distracting until you get used to it, and Vogel to some extent has stacked ending upon ending upon ending (albeit each of them is poetic and penetrating in its own way). Still, the constant presence of the musicians (Lisa Gutkin, Aaron Halva, Travis W. Hendrix) and the choreography by David Dorfman that doesn’t call undue attention to itself portray a microcosmic world where art thrived for its own sake and a people stood resolute amid torment and oppression, and sought to live life with joy.
Ion Theatre’s transformation of its adjacent URBN CENTR 4THE ARTS into a faded South Philly bar in the late ‘50s provides an intimate candlelit setting for the gifted Cashae Monya’s performance as Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. The 80-minute production isn’t technically a one-person show – musical director Brandon Sherman, as keyboardist Jimmy Powers, accompanies Monya from the shadows. But you’ll never take your eyes off Monya, who may not have the singing voice of Lady Day (come on, who does?) yet does justice to signature Holiday songs including “What a Little Moonlight Can Do,” “God Bless the Child” and “Don’t Explain.” More impressive, Monya’s portrayal of a sick -- and sick at heart -- Holiday performing during the last year of her life is periodically sweet and sad.
The focus of Lanie Robertson’s 2014 play, which starred Audra McDonald on Broadway, is not on Holiday’s distinctive vocalizing but rather on her aching, sometimes rambling reminiscences about a life rent by racism, substance abuse and even brief imprisonment. Monya’s dramatization is chilling.
Side By Side By Sondheim, which closes the North Coast Repertory Theatre’s 33rd season, is a celebration of the legendary lyricist and composer, who really needs no introduction. Accompanied by two pianists onstage, Randall Dodge, Angelina Reaux, Rena Strober and Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper (who also narrates about Sondheim’s spectacular career) croon or belt out, whichever is called for, nearly 30 of the master’s show tunes. Most are classics from powerhouses like Gypsy, West Side Story and Company, but a few are on the obscure side.
The fun-loving ensemble adds theatricality to the proceedings by incorporating sight gags and other comedy bits, though individually they tend to oversell some of the ballads. Nevertheless, Side by Side … is a thoroughly entertaining evening of Sondheim for fans, and for those brushing up on their Broadway history, it makes for a lively musical education.
Just a few months after San Diego Musical Theatre staged the perennial Broadway fave about the Jets and the Sharks and Tony and Maria, Lamb’s Players Theatre is presenting its own West Side Story, and it’s still irresistible. Even if Lamb’s’ Tony (Kevin Hafso-Koppman) seems too mild for a gang member – perhaps he’s too lovestruck? -- this West Side Story contains all the requisite ingredients: top-shelf choreography (by Colleen Kollar Smith); exciting fight scenes (choreographed by Jordan Miller), a crowd-wowing Anita (Michele Alves) and, of course, Leonard Bernstein’s music and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics, which together ensure that this is a show with perpetual staying power.
Carlsbad’s New Village Arts Theatre launches its 15th season with the likable mishmash that is Return to the Forbidden Planet. British playwright Bob Carlton’s jukebox musical mixes the iconic sci-fi flick “Forbidden Planet” with Shakespeare (not just “The Tempest,” upon which in part that 1956 movie was based, but others of The Bard’s works as well.) Then – who knows why? – it tosses into the goulash hit pop songs from the ‘50s and ‘60s.
It’s all rather ridiculous and over-ambitious. But NVA’s production is distinguished by a deft and fun-loving cast. Manny Fernandes basks in the Dr. Prospero mad scientist part, Keavne L’Marr Coleman nails the role of the roller-skating droid Ariel, and among the singing actors soloing, Marlene Montes soars highest. If you banish the classic film from your mind and brush up on your Shakespeare a little, you’ll enjoy this excessive but genial extraterrestrial trip.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat