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Dead reckonings 

'Sonnets' sears its place in the canon

Now we have a Spoon River Anthology to call our own, a work whose scope and insights begin to suggest an Our Town for our generation. The only question left involves what we do with the information. It is a fearsome enough thing. Its name is Sonnets for an Old Century. Much as Edgar Masters did nearly 90 years before--with a much larger sample from a much smaller town--playwright Jose Rivera gives 18 characters from present-day Los Angeles and environs one final chance in this collection of dramatic monologues to speak their peace about their lives, apparently from just the other side of the grave.

A quizzical astronomer killed in a quake, a child in a family of migrant farmworkers lost in a car crash, a tortured soul with an extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder, and a woman who once ran for president just to see what would happen if she tried--in this rich and pensive Manbites Dog Theater production, these and 12 others share sharp stories about diverse lives just concluded.

Given the limited opportunities for character interaction that a suite of solo narratives presents, it's understandable that director Jeff Storer has sought permission here to shatter two of Rivera's monologues into a chorus of individual observations from different characters, one on lessons learned, the other dealing with favorite "firsts."

But even without them, Storer's direction effectively prevents Sonnets from ever devolving into some kind of dutiful recital. Throughout, the members of the group serve as each other's witnesses before offering testimony themselves. Some are noticeably more comfortable doing that than others.

In more than one instance, this afterlife give-and-take seems by far the most social activity some have had in quite some time. And thereby hangs a tale of the systemic isolation and loneliness that have apparently been a major part of many of these characters' lives.

Nanci Burrows, a fine actor rarely seen on regional stages, convinces here as a cynical corporate shill whose apparently never-changing nightly ritual of "microwave, television and insomnia" is finally interrupted once, to the good, by air pollution--before it ultimately kills her. In her harrowing turn, Kendall Rileigh's OCD patient actually celebrates the twisted "moral superiority" granted by her diseased hermitage. A third woman recalls wondering if she had any identity, any reality apart from a wall of books her mother erected between the two and the outside world.

So much for the social compact. One character admits to having sex with his partner "while children starved, racists ran for office, war was raged on the poor, exotic and never-to-be-duplicated forms of life were deleted, fundamentalists dictated the terms of our living [and] the hoarding classes perfected devious and more efficient ways to horde." Julie Oliver's character spends her last moments attempting to apologize to the absent man she abandoned to street thugs, years before. A jokey, evasive forklift operator (Damion Sledge) prepares for some celestial district attorney, trying to figure out what crime he's about to be charged with.

Given the context, when Barbette Hunter's amateur presidential candidate admits to making "real connections to real people" over red meat and a few beers with total strangers, she's achieved something many of the folks onstage have not. Elsewhere, dignity and humor accompany selected souls at the border of ... something else.

A devoted cast of 16 includes notable first-time showings by Chaunesti Lyon, Allison Kirkland, Marc Harber and Rida Perez-Salazar and strong work from Harvey Sage, Etheldreda Guion, Beth Popelka and Mario Griego, another memorable but infrequent guest on the local stage in recent years.

The musical group Gang of Four had a song in the 1980s, "We Live as We Die, Alone." Though Dead Ace Productions' ambient musical soundscapes never quoted it, the title kept coming up in the presence of this lonely crowd. Strongly recommended.

You read it here first: scenic designer Rick Young has outdone himself in the current show at Raleigh Little Theatre. But the real news on the set of One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest involves the constellation of performances that keep pace with the aesthetic upgrades in the other elements of that production.

Strong set and costume design have been the one consistent factor in recent seasons on the stages at RLT; both have repeatedly outshone the decidedly off-again, on-again acting and direction in the same period.

Even so, Young's dingy, grungy day room in an Oregonian state mental hospital sets a new level of achievement for environments at this theater. Walls and floors done up in shades of institutional green, grime--and tell-tale streaks of faded red--surround the second-story cage, of a combination surveillance tower and nurse's station. Exposed girders and supports of pig iron and rebar only add to the spiritual uplift in a room forsaken by God, Freud and all hope as well.

So far, so good. But when we've forgotten the room we'll still remember Maggie Rasnick's iron-backed interpretation of Nurse Ratched, the asylum's major-domo. For my money, it's an accomplishment surpassing even Julie Fishell's formidable reading in Open Door Theater's turn-of-the-century production of the play. Where that production presented a character arguably cognizant of the scams of power and privilege, Rasnick here is directed as something significantly more frightening: a true believer, icy in the certain knowledge that everything she does really is for best for her "boys."

It's as much a tribute to Rasnick as it is to her co-directors, set designer Young (pulling double duty in this production) and his wife, Linda.

But an actor at this level of achievement sets a difficult standard for others to follow. Many do. Timothy Cherry brings urbane dignity to inmate Harding, and Kurt Benrud is a haunted Chief Bromden. David Coulter, Matt Schedler, Al Marsiglia and Del Flack all distinguish themselves in supporting roles in the asylum. So do Larry Evans and the beneficent Justin Farr, though their roles at times are arguably over-relied upon for comic relief.

All of which leaves the central, unanswered riddle of Seth Blum's work as R. P. McMurphy. By now, Blum's credentials as a serious actor have been well established. But this interpretation, to my eyes at least, resolves the question of his sanity--and his fate--far too early in the game.

Traditionally with McMurphy, one thing has to be the case. He has to convince us that he actually might get away with all of it--the gambling scams, the day-room power plays, and ultimately his freedom. But here it's hard to escape the sense that we're watching a pretty flimsy con man slowly being crushed in a system he has fatally miscalculated. As they say these days in upscale Texas, the man's hat-to-cattle ratio is seriously off.

Before a show like Cuckoo's Nest can crush our hopes, it has to actually raise them. I'm still not certain I ever saw enough of that in an otherwise frequently distinguished production at Raleigh Little Theatre.

  • 'Sonnets' sears its place in the canon

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