The Lower D's
Duke Theatre Studies
Shaefer Lab Theater
Through Nov. 21
Doin' Time: Through the Visiting Glass
Solo Takes On Festival
Swain Hall, UNC
Solo Takes On Festival
The Artscenter in Carrboro
Closed Nov. 14
The shift from melodrama to realism in Russian theater wasn't truly achieved until Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths premiered in 1902. Stanislavski's first major triumph with Moscow Art Theater not only upended the comforting view that Russian poverty was somehow innately ennobling but also marked a shift in emphasis from plot-driven to character-driven performance.
It's fitting, then, that as an adaptation called The Lower D's premiered at Sheafer Theater, two other beneficiaries of Gorky's legacy took to the stage at a theater festival in Carrboro. In Michael Kearns' Intimacies, a sextet of vivid characters confronted the historical stigmas of gay sexuality and the threat of HIV. In Doin' Time by Ashley Lucas, 12 people bear witness to the very real sentence served—concurrently, by innocent family members and children—when a loved one goes to prison.
The twist? The Gorky staging boasted a cast of 18 students, while Intimacies and Doin' Time, as entrants in UNC's Solo Takes On Festival, each had a cast of one.
Michael Kearns created Intimacies for World AIDS Day in 1989. His stop here was during a 20th-anniversary tour for the show. There's considerable craft in the writing and performance of this still-edgy work. From the sexually frank admission in the opening line of the first monologue, notice is served: We've come here for extreme close-ups on six individuals—detailed character sketches that reveal warts, hypocrisies and lesions as well.
Perhaps the greatest endorsement of Kearns' work came from an audience member who said, "I've been an HIV nurse for 14 years, and I know all of those people. Every one."
Doin' Time was born after Ashley Lucas' father was denied parole in 1998. She began interviewing family members of prisoners, activists and former and present prisoners to get a sense of the impact incarceration had on the ones who weren't behind bars. "I knew that with two million people behind bars in the U.S., they all had to be somewhere," she said in an after-show discussion, "and yet I had somehow never known anybody who had family in prison." When Lucas probed, she found them everywhere. She also found a largely self-imposed silence, born out of shame, concerns of social ostracism and the fear of loss of employment, among others. In her show, Lucas gives these people voice.
A small child whose mother claims has the gift of healing touch cannot lay her hands on the one person she knows who needs healing the most. A feisty mother of two downs a couple of Lone Stars while saying, "The war on terror isn't over. It's in my house. It's in my bed." Elsewhere, the jailed husband of an African-American woman wants a divorce that his wife doesn't. A sibling recalls the last graffito his brother wrote before beginning his seven-year sentence: "David Archilita is in prison. God is with him. God is a prisoner."
In the present form of her work in progress, Lucas moves from place to place on the Swain Hall stage, changing characters by means of a slight change of costume. But her segues are repeatedly interrupted by the same sound cue: the jarring sound of a jail door closing. It seems to disorient Lucas momentarily before she moves on. Though she only sometimes takes on the accents of her characters, they are never less than believable.
As a one-act play, Lucas' work leaves so many tales untouched—including those relationships that prison life effectively ends. Now that she's broken so large a silence, I would encourage her to continue listening for those stories that still remain to be told. Victim-rights advocates could only object to the seeming absence of their constituency by refusing to recognize that the people on stage constitute the other innocent bystanders, the undocumented casualties in the war on crime.
Director Jay O'Berski claims that his adaptation of The Lower D's takes place in a rude, primitively furnished—and decidedly for-profit—homeless shelter in Lagos, Nigeria. But I have to wonder what—aside from the hip popular music references—differentiates this room from a Depression-era flophouse, an inner-city (or rural) crack house or other shantytowns the world over.
I've little doubt that's intentional, an attempt to reflect the worldwide face of poverty in what seems a studiously chosen internationalist cast—even if most of those we see here appear too well-fed to truly reflect the lowest depths. But the improvisations derived here from a 1970s adaptation used by England's Royal Shakespeare Company frequently seem a bit too ad hoc and too freewheeling. Torry Bend's zero-carbon-footprint set, made of cast-off tin and metal, assorted hardware, recycled wood and rugs in differing states of decomposition, suggests the detritus of an economy that has totally collapsed. The colorful, clearly dead-end denizens we see here suggest that their society and culture has done much the same.
Gorky's original critics decried his script's relative lack of plot—a reservation that I expect will be echoed in response to this production. But the relative absence of setup and exposition, and the stakes-lessness of the catfights and brawls that suddenly erupt and then quickly dissipate, only underlines the flatness of life for these people without a viable future or a usable past O'Berski's group conveys just how thin the ledge these folks are on—and then how far they still have left to fall. Given the economic realities of the past two years and their repercussions into all other corners of life, we don't dare call The Lower D's a tale from the past. Not when it potentially qualifies more as the coming attractions.