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Albee's Baby cries out for a soul

In threes... 

Albee's Baby cries out for a soul

We've seen the phrase before, right? "Old age and treachery will always triumph over youth and skill." It's just the pithy sort of nonsense best left to cover T-shirts, mugs and bumper stickers, possibly in a tasteful gothic font. Unfortunately, since Edward Albee actually managed to fashion a play from material this thin, the year's most cynical play thus far continues Thursday night at Common Ground Theatre. That would be Ghost & Spice's production of The Play About the Baby, a work that hits far too many familiar notes before the end of 90 minutes.

Of course it is Albee's prerogative--and perhaps, at times, his genius--to provoke. But 40 years after another play about another baby--Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?--cemented his reputation on Broadway, have his darker insights into the human condition terminated in this achievement: a repetitious, insufferably smug and self-congratulatory script in which the playwright reveals he can no longer conceive of a human identity separate from pathology?

"If you have no wounds, how can you know if you're alive?" John Murphy's character, Man, queries before launching this wobbly couplet: "If you have no scar, how do you know who you are?"

The words are aimed at a 20-something couple who are condescendingly named Girl and Boy. By the time of the play the young woman has already experienced childbirth, while her partner has faced at least one painful life circumstance, confronting a gang of toughs after a concert.

Too bad for them: Neither experience counts for much in the playwright's big book of human suffering. So he sends his surrogates: Man and Woman, an older, more sophisticated--oops, I almost called them "couple"--to administer what the playwright believes to be a necessary education in pain and loss. For their own good, really.

After all, how else might the two hope to eventually become as interesting as their older counterparts? And what else could possibly denote the fullness of human potential?

In the younger set, Albee seems to give the role of Girl more to work with than the weaker Boy. Under Rachel Klem's direction, Heather Hackford convinces when sheltering her character's partner, played by Joe Brack, and later when responding to the threats of the Man and Woman.

Lenore Field ingratiates as Woman before her character's steelier traits stand revealed. But the moral superiority of the older pair wears thin early--particularly when the director lets John Murphy repeat far too many of the same character notes we've heard and seen from him in recent work. His Man is but a variant on the rhetorical bully we've seen in Ola Rotimi's Holding Talks, Pinter's One for the Road and last year's Taking Sides.

Finally, any play that has its oh-so-superior villains condescend as openly to the audience as they do is simply asking for it--particularly when we're directly asked so many leading questions. The moment we begin to feel as abused as the younger man and woman is the moment we're likely to start answering a few of those questions as we see fit, in real-time--or coming up with questions on our own.

Ironically, that nagging tone of moral certitude was largely absent from Justice Theater Project's latest work, Witness. Unfortunately, it's far from clear if what replaced it was of much use to contemporary audiences.

Witness purports to show us how a small Vermont town confronted racism and bigotry when the Ku Klux Klan infiltrated it in 1924. Though the Klan begins with appeals to hyper-patriotism, it ultimately targets Ira and Esther Hirsh, a widowed Jewish shoemaker and his 6-year-old daughter, and Leonora, an African-American girl who befriends young Esther.

Though never advertised as such, John Urquhart's adaptation of Karen Hesse's Caldecott Award-winning work for young readers is clearly aimed at middle-school audiences.

In the oratory of small-town preacher Johnny Reeves (vividly realized here by Jim Moscater), Urquhart and Hesse usefully display the subtlety with which zealots can weave xenophobia and hatred into the fabric of Christian discourse. If the rest of the play matched the fidelity of these moments, Witness would truly bear witness to one darkness in the American soul.

But too many of the other characters remain too two-dimensional to let us invest in the inhabitants of this small town. And when the playwright lets the Klan's leading proponent, Harvey the shop-owner, off the hook as a source of laughs and not of terror, a new injustice--and nothing less--is being enacted in this theater.

Why is a Klansman ever a laughing matter? What does it teach our children when the group just sort of fades away, without organized opposition or resistance? What occurs when upstanding town constable Johnson just sort of drops the search for the man who nearly killed Ira with a shotgun? Where, in short, is justice--or the critique of its absence--in the ethically problematic ending of this work?

In keeping history far too safe and sanitized, presumably for younger audiences, the value of what remains is open to question, particularly to the children who constitute its primary audience. Why is this not-too-scary tale the one that was required? And what other stories are diluted beyond recognition, left out or erased in this one coming forward?

As I watched, another actor I respect was being sacrificed for the sins of a playwright--if not a director. I refer to Byron Jennings II, who for all his strengths simply didn't have the pipes for the legendary rhythm and blues singer that's the title character in Blue, the soapy family melodrama that closed last weekend at Raleigh Little Theatre. Playwright Charles Randolph-Wright and musician Nona Hendryx's score was already arguably the weakest element in this music theater piece--a fabric of songs from various albums by the fictitious singer that formed a sort of counterpoint to the life events of the Clark family of Kent, S.C.

But when director Haskell Fitz-Simons blurs the lines between fantasy and reality, Blue winds up leading the mambo through the cold white marble of the Clark's living room.

The joke is, when a family trade in the funeral home business combines with the chillier proclivities of wife, mother and former model Peggy, not a lot of what you'd call living actually happens in the living room, or anywhere else in this icy palace for that matter.

Therein lies one of the difficulties of this play. If it takes Peggy's permafrost too seriously, we wind up with an African-American knock-off of Ordinary People--and so much for the laugh riot. If it doesn't, what drives the rest of the family to their extremes?

As a result we're left with a half-measure. Peggy's pretensions are lampooned, particularly around suppertime when multi-culti take-out tributes mock her incompetence in the kitchen. She comes right out and stings mother-in-law Tillie when a cover photo in Ebony won't include her, while her son, Samuel, says nothing. Even so, the darker aspects of her attempts at molding son Reuben into a jazz aesthete--when nothing less is acceptable--are left relatively unexplored.

Sherida McMullan is rarely challenged here, gliding through Peggy's bitchy passages with elan, while Lester Hill seems prematurely embalmed in places as husband Samuel. Thankfully, LeDawna Atkins animates things as Tillie, a mother-in-law who will only take so much. Chaunesti Lyon also adds life as LaTonya Dinkins, a girlfriend ultimately found a bit too acceptable by the family.

Given the script and direction, LaMark Wright views his own past through too much gauze as the older Reuben, while Michael Lee gives a convincing change-up as Sam Clark III, the son who, despite all odds, goes into the family business.

But Randolph-Wright sacrifices believability when the mythical title singer shows up in Kent, on three separate occasions, to directly intervene in three characters' lives. A soapy ending that fails to tie things up results in two song cues too many for a strained performer--and credibility strained well beyond the breaking point.

Reviews
***1/2 A Moon for the Misbegotten , Deep Dish Theater--The pleasures in O'Neill's lower-class domestic drama include Helen Hagen's triumphant return as the rough-edged Josie, whose long-denied desires implode one night on a failing Connecticut tenant farm in 1923. Though director Tony Lea crafts Tom Marriott's surprisingly intimate, interior take on Phil, the prickly patriarch of the Hogan clan, did a curmudgeon this charming really strike terror in the hearts of his sons? The rawness of Hagen's work suggests a cello line from Bartok, not played so much as sliced into, remorselessly. But did she, Lea and John Allore, who plays dissipated love interest James Tyrone, ever really determine what makes him a dead man in Josie's eyes, as she holds him in the rosy dawn? (Through Mar. 5. $10-14. 968-1515.)

Byron Woods can be reached at byron@indyweek.com.

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