Left to right: Deja Fields, Marcel Ferrin, DeAndre Simmons and Justin Lang in "Clyde's." Photo by Daren Scott
Order up! Metaphor with melted gruyere and garlic aioli on ciabatta bread!
That could well be Lynn Nottage’s one-act comedy “Clyde’s,” in which a sandwich represents almost anything except a sandwich. For the formerly incarcerated kitchen crew at Clyde’s truck stop diner in Pennsylvania, pursuit of the perfect sandwich is a matter of personal expression, pride in oneself and healing.
If the sandwich is a doubledecker metaphor in “Clyde’s,” that can be forgiven, for a couple of reasons. For one, the sandwiches brainstormed and in some cases concocted by Montrellous, Letitia, Rafael and Jason are reflections of their distinctive personalities even as they share the lingering pain of having been in prison (and for different reasons, how they got there in the first place). For another, some of the sandwiches described sound so delicious, this show’s guaranteed to incite your appetite.
Moxie Theatre is staging “Clyde’s” under the direction of Delicia Turner Sonnenberg, the company’s co-founder and original artistic director. When it comes to directing a production with as many moving parts and intertwining relationships as this one has, and to realizing onstage the work of Lynn Nottage, no one does that better than Turner Sonnenberg. She previously directed the playwright’s “Crumbs from the Table of Joy” at Moxie 10 years ago, and Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel” at the San Diego Rep in 2006.
Set in a meticulously realistic kitchen designed by Michael Wogulis that includes many appliances and tools on loan to Moxie, “Clyde’s” is a character study constantly in motion. There’s sandwich making, supply restocking, drizzling of ingredients, snatching of order-pad sheets from a window, mopping up … none of which ever intrudes on the interactions between the kitchen staff doing their first jobs out of the joint, and doing their damnedest to survive.
Montrellous (a resonant DeAndre Simmons) is Clyde’s philosopher-king, a gentle man who has raised the art of the sandwich to fine art. Single-mom Letitia (Deja Fields) is making ends meet while relying on fire and spirit. Rafael (Marcel Ferrin) is sweet and sweet on Letitia. Jason (Justin Lang) is a return character from Nottage’s “Sweat,” at first estranged from the others but quickly accepted by them in spite of the barely suppressed darkness within him.
As in the best successful stories, the denizens of Clyde’s little kitchen become people whose fates we care about – underdogs who are desperate for a second chance at life and who, while whipping up sandwiches, share hopes they otherwise might not have dared to hope for.
Then there’s Clyde herself (Tanya Alexander), the embodiment of all the bitterness, resentment and ire that life’s hard knocks and incarceration can beat into a person. Confrontational and verbally abusive, she visits the kitchen to deride and declare war on hopes and dreams. Designer sandwiches? These are truckers! They want truck stop food! Worse: “You’re all losers.”
Clyde and Montrellous are polar adversaries, and at junctures she seems too bad to be true and he too good to be true. But notably in the case of the Montrellous character, Nottage’s script will make clear that there is another, guarded depth of emotion swelling inside.
The Moxie cast one and all is standout, with each actor enjoying at least one (and some many more than one) scenes to elucidate his or her character. There are moments of confession, desperation and anger, but also tender gestures here and there that remind us of each ex-inmate’s humanity.
Nuances of lighting (by Annelise Salazar) and snippets of music (sound design by Harper Justus) make the Clyde’s kitchen more than just a workplace. We can imagine that the unseen side of Clyde’s – where the truckers weaned on ketchup and pickle relish pull up a stool to chow down – is something else entirely.
Performances from Fields and Lang in particular, along with some genuine laughs amid the baring of soul that runs through “Clyde’s,” mark this as quite possibly the best production at Moxie since Desiree Clarke Miller assumed the role of artistic director. It also testifies to the remarkable writing talent of Lynn Nottage whose intuition about people striving for a better life is uncanny.
“Clyde’s” runs through March 10 at Moxie Theatre in Rolando.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.