Marti Gobel (left) and Rachel Cognata in "Mud Row." Karli Cadell Photography
As richly drawn as the characters are in Dominique Morisseau’s “Mud Row,” there’s one “character” not listed in the dramatis personae: an abandoned (though it turns out not really) house in a discarded neighborhood in West Chester, Pa. It’s there, in the midst of a sofa draped in plastic and lamps rarely lit for want of electricity, that past and present converge and two generations of Black women strive for self-truth and identity.
"Mud Row,” now onstage at Cygnet Theatre directed by Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, also finds its characters in various stages of reconciliation, either with the lots given them, with those who came before them, or with each other.
Cygnet’s is a riveting and superbly acted production of Morisseau’s play, which premiered three years ago at People’s Light in Pennsylvania’s Chester County. Here is a vividly told, multi-layered story in which, thanks in part to the excellent performances in Old Town, we care about each of its six characters.
Elsie (Andrea Agosto) and Frances (Joy Yvonne Jones) are sisters with very different priorities living in the turbulent ‘60s. Elsie wishes to ascend socially, in part by marrying into the so-called “Talented Tenth.” The militant Frances, meanwhile, is in the thick of the civil rights movement. Her dreams are not material ones.
This recurring narrative alternates with the present-day circumstances at the West Chester house, which belonged to Grandma Elsie: Her accomplished grown granddaughter Regine (Marti Gobel) has discovered she has inherited the place. Disturbed by her memories of it and her life there, she wants no part of it and tells her loving husband Davin (Rondrell McCormick) so. They will sell it and, to Regine’s way of thinking, get what they can for it.
There’s a complication: Regine and Davin realize someone has been living in the house.
The audience learns before they do that Regine’s estranged troubled younger sister Toshi (Rachel Cognata) and her boyfriend Tyriek (Leo Ebanks) have been squatting at the house for three months. A recovering drug addict, the fiercely determined Toshi isn’t about to give up the house. She equates their living in it with the promise of a new, better life.
Much more than mere family drama plays out as “Mud Row” tensely moves toward resolution, from Frances’ terrifying flashback confrontations while protesting to a shocking moment of impulsive violence in the house at the end of Act One.
The most crucial and affecting scenes are those between sisters: between Elsie and Frances as their chosen paths diverge more and more, and between Regine and Toshi, whose relationship seems irrevocably broken by betrayals and resentments.
Besides Joy Yvonne Jones, who continues to demonstrate why she is one of the most talented young actors in town, Gobel and Cognata both alone and together illuminate the pain and doubts that each sister endures. Regine and Toshi find rare common ground in their memories of Grandma Elsie, aching as those are.
If at times “Mud Row” gets speechy, it’s at least acknowledged once when Toshi asks to be excused for employing a metaphor, and the reality is that some of the play’s most revealing moments emanate from just the fire in Frances’ eyes or in Toshi’s inward, restless reckoning with her past.
Brian Redfern’s scenic design, lighting by Caroline Andrew and sound design by Melanie Chen Cole all contribute to an immersive, time-traveling visit to a house where fulfillment of dreams comes uneasily … if at all.
“Mud Row” runs through June 19 at Cygnet Theatre in Old Town.
The ensemble cast of "Come From Away." Photo by Matthew Murphy
As much as I loved “Come From Away” when it premiered seven years ago at La Jolla Playhouse, I wondered, when it opened two years later on Broadway, if the masses would embrace the musical by Irene Sankoff and David Hein. Heartwarming and often joyous as it is, “Come from Away” is also a reminder of the nightmare that was 9/11. Would “America” take to it on the Great White Way?
It did, in a big way. “Come from Away” would become the longest-running Canadian musical in Broadway history and would earn director Christopher Ashley (the Playhouse’s artistic director) a Tony Award in 2017.
A national touring production of “Come from Away” was to have made a stop at the Civic Theatre downtown in a Broadway San Diego presentation in 2020 … but enough said about 2020 the better. Happily, “Come from Away” has returned at last, in a BSD engagement that runs through Sunday.
If you saw “Come From Away” in La Jolla or on Broadway, see it again. If you’ve never seen “Come From Away,” your time is now.
It is a play with music (more than a pure, full-on musical) about “Operation Yellow Ribbon,” in which 38 airliners were forced by the events of Sept. 11, 2001, to land in little Gander, Newfoundland, population around 10,000. Some 6,500 people, both passengers and flight crew members, were taken care of and taken to the hearts of the generous people of Gander.
Over the course of just one act we get to know both Newfoundlanders and the “come from aways” in their care. The mayor. The constable. The airline pilot. The mother whose son is a missing New York City firefighter. The woman and man from different continents thrown together who fall in love. These aren’t “types.” They are real people dramatized from the true story of “Operation Yellow Ribbon.” (You can see many of them in a superb NBC documentary hosted by Tom Brokaw, available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXbxoy4Mges)
Revisiting “Come From Away” reminded me of all the things I admired about it at La Jolla Playhouse in 2015, like the simplicity of a set composed basically of chairs and the ingenuity of with only these chairs (or nothing at all) taking us inside an airliner or an airport terminal or a local school gymnasium converted into a “hotel.” Here too is a show with many moving parts that never loses its way. Its characters are defined just enough to invest us in their individual desires and dilemmas. The band onstage recreates the folk music of Newfoundland, enlivening but not overwhelming the proceedings.
Most of “Come From Away’s” songs are there to chronicle those days and nights in Gander and to move the story forward, from the opening “Welcome to the Rock” to the pub-party tune “Screech In” to the more thoughtful “Stop the World” and “Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere.” The closing “Something’s Missing” is a 9/11 elegy that has lost none of its potency in the passing years.
This touring production cast is exceptional. As prescribed, all actors play multiple roles. Marika Aubrey, who plays American Airlines pilot Beverley Bass, and Kevin Carolan, portraying Gander Mayor Claude Elliott, lead the way, with touching performances too from Christine Toy Johnson and Chamblee Ferguson as Diane and Nick, the pair from Dallas and London respectively who find love in Newfoundland.
Guaranteed there will be moments when the songs or stories of “Come From Away” will catch in your throat, whether it’s the tender gesture of a neighbor toward a stranger or the refusal of an animal shelter manager to abandon the frightened pets stranded aboard the empty jetliners.
“Come From Away” may be the closest you’ll ever get to Gander. You’ll feel like you’ve been there, and for an hour and 40 minutes you’ll feel like an honorary Newfoundlander.
Thank you again to our friends north of the border.
"Come From Away" runs through May 22 at the Civic Theatre, downtown.
"Mala" at the Old Globe Theatre
Melinda Lopez in "Mala." Photo by Rich Soublet II
To call a woman “mala” in Spanish is to call her a bad person. In the case of a daughter trying to take care of her elderly and infirm mother, this also translates to “No good deed goes unpunished.”
Melinda Lopez inhabits this role in her one-woman play “Mala,” onstage through June 12 in the Old Globe’s Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre in the round. For nearly 80 minutes, she recounts the odyssey and ordeal of caregiving: the dreading of late-night phone calls; the agonizing over whether to try to force a loved one into a hospital for treatment; the wondering how long it can all go on; and the feelings of guilt when entertaining the thought that there will be an end.
Americans of any means at all are inclined to thrust their elderly parents into “facilities” or “homes,” abdicating the care to strangers. But Lopez and her family are of traditional Cuban lineage, and that’s something you just don’t do. Out of love and out of duty, you do what you must do, even as it’s tearing you apart.
“Mala” finds Lopez portraying not only herself and her mother, but others in the caregiving sphere, from friends and neighbors offering unsolicited advice to an impossibly cheery hospice worker. Nobody has an answer because there isn’t any.
Lopez’s relaxed presence onstage and occasional humor lighten what might otherwise be a stiflingly heavy subject, one that all too many people in the audience either know all too well or fear will someday come to pass. She makes it clear that difficult as her plight is, it’s manageable because she’s acting out of love.
Toward the tail end of the play, directed by David Dower, Lopez admits to hating poets, so it’s interesting that the script turns rather poetic afterward. Anytime you drag T.S. Eliot into the theater – and this has nothing to do with “Cats” – you’re flirting with pretentiousness.
Fortunately, Lopez brings her show to its conclusion without posturing and without melodrama. She is alone on the stage as she has been the entire time, but her story has found its way into the consciences and maybe the hearts as well of anyone who’s experienced the telling of it.
"Mala" runs through June 12 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.