Friday, February 4, 2011

You Can't Go Home Again

On a Wednesday afternoon back in the spring of 1985, my father and I were standing in line at the Times Square TKTS booth, waiting to purchase discount seats for a matinee performance when the woman behind us turned to her daughter and asked "How about getting tickets to Strange Interlude -- isn't that a musical?"

Ummmm, no. Strange Interlude is a five-hour play by Eugene O'Neill in which, after learning that there is a history of insanity in her husband's family, a pregnant woman undergoes an abortion and conceives a "replacement" with her physician while letting her husband believe that he is the child's biological father.

That's one reason why it's important to draw a sharp distinction between dramatic pieces about American families and what passes for family entertainment in America. Consider the following:
It helps to know the difference before you purchase a ticket.

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First published in 1939, John Steinbeck's wrenching novel, The Grapes of Wrath, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1940 and the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1962. In 1990, the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago staged a riveting adaptation by Frank Galati, which was subsequently transferred to Broadway and broadcast over PBS as part of its Great Performances series in 1991.

When I saw that production in the Cort Theatre, I was impressed by the operatic pulse of Galati's staging. Thus, I was not the least bit surprised to learn that the Minnesota Opera had presented the world premiere of an operatic version of The Grapes of Wrath with a libretto by Michael Korie and music by Ricky Ian Gordon in February of 2007. After productions by the Utah Symphony Orchestra, the Pittsburgh Opera, the Moores School of Music at the University of Houston, and a concert version at Carnegie Hall narrated by Jane Fonda, a revised version of the opera will be performed in April at Michigan State University (where the composer is in residence).

The Joad family en route to California (Photo by: Rob Schroeder)

A slightly shortened version of Galati's stage adaptation was recently directed by Jon Tracy for Oakland's THEATREFirst, whose artistic director (Michael Storm) notes that:
"When the questions arise about the validity of producing Grapes, I consider the current context of the tech bubble bursting, the housing bubble bursting, the financial markets in disarray, and the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, and I can't help but respond 'Why wouldn't we produce this play?'  This country has a track record of operating in very destructive ways and, in my opinion, any story that educates future generations on the consequences of that destructiveness is productive and worthy of being told.  The mass exodus that the Joads participate in is the result of over-anxious economic development. However, the cloud of capitalism they encounter in California is far worse than the dust clouds they leave behind. How we as individuals cope with these trying times and how family and community persevere is the real story here."
TheatreFIRST's staging may lack some of the powerful dramatic moments (a real rainstorm) that were so impressive in the Steppenwolf production, but that is mostly due to financial restraints. Although several actors performed multiple roles in the Steppenwolf production, Tracy has made some cuts and reduced the size of the cast from 31 seasoned performers to 8 young actors.

Emily Morrison as Al Joad and Alex Hersler as Tom Joad
Photo by: Rob Schroeder

At times, the obvious youth and health of Tracy's ensemble prevents them from looking as dog tired and burned out as the characters in Steinbeck's drama about itinerant Okies caught in America's dust bowl. A master at achieving maximum theatrical impact with minimum resources, Tracy's staging includes enough rapid changes of headgear to lay to rest Elaine Stritch's old question "Does anyone still wear a hat?" In his author's note for the stage adaptation, Frank Galati wrote:
"The Grapes of Wrath need not be performed using complex technical effects.  Our efforts in designing the play were always to make the most modest use of available stagecraft.  We strove to be simple. Simplicity is difficult to achieve and sometimes the expressive power of stage effects can overtake story and character. We tried very hard never to let that happen. In a sense, there was no 'scenery' in our production; there were natural elements, detailed costumes, and many real objects. We did feel that the actors needed the 'things' that are precious, necessary for survival and also burdensome to the characters they played, just as they needed real clothes, not 'costumes,' to complete this personal environment of each human being in the story.  Future productions of this play may not have fire and water and a motorized jalopy, but they may have the power that a bare stage, a few props, and a group of passionate artists can create."

Alex Hersler as Tom Joad (Photo by: Rob Schroeder)

I was particularly impressed by the lean and lanky Alex Hersler as Tom Joad, Danielle Levin as a fiercely impassioned Ma Joad, Ryan Tasker doing double duty as Pa Joad/Uncle John, and Michael Barrett Austin as the disillusioned priest, Jim Casy. Other members of the ensemble included Roy Landaverde as Muley Graves, Emily Morrison as Ruthie/Al, Rebecca Pingree as Grandma/The Man Going Back, and Kelly Strickland as Rose of Sharon.

Performances of The Grapes of Wrath continue at THEATREFirst in Oakland through February 20 (you can order tickets here).

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In 1959, A Raisin in the Sun became the first play by an African American woman to be produced on Broadway. Only 29 years of age, Lorraine Hansberry became the youngest American playwright to win the Drama Critics Circle Award. Her play was inspired by her family's experiences with racial discrimination after they moved into an all-white neighborhood in Chicago.

Lorraine Hansberry

A key scene in Hansberry's play involves the appearance of Karl Linder who, acting on behalf of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association, attempts to bribe the Younger family into changing their plans. Bruce Norris's magnificent new play, Clybourne Park, takes off as Linder returns to his white friends in the suburb of Clybourne Park to explain what happened.

American Conservatory Theatre is presenting the West Coast premiere of Clybourne Park in a triumphant production that has been beautifully directed by Jonathan Moscone. As always, Moscone does a stellar job of framing delicately-nuanced moments and letting stage silences and double takes communicate layers of context to the audience.

Act I takes place in 1959 in the home of Bev (René Augesen) and Russ (Anthony Fusco), whose son Dan (portrayed in Act II by Fusco) committed suicide following his return home from the Korean War by hanging himself in his upstairs bedroom. As they pack to move to a new home, Bev frets over trivial things while their maid, Francine (Omozé Idehenre), tries to leave and go home after her husband, Albert (Gregory Wallace), arrives to pick her up.

The local priest (Manuel Felciano) is none too happy with Russ's suggestion that Father Jim go fuck himself. However, it is the arrival of Karl Linder (Richard Thieriot) and his very pregnant deaf wife, Betsy (Emily Kitchens), that ignites a cringe-worthy display of self-righteous racism as Karl tries to explain to his friends why "colored folk" like Francine and Albert are, you know, just different.  After all, he notes, he's never seen any black people go skiing where he and his family go every year.

Francine (Omozé Idehenre), Albert (Gregory Wallace),
and Karl (Richard Thieriot ) in Clybourne Park
(Photo by: Erik Tomasson)

Karl is the kind of salesman who is so in love with the sound of his own voice (and the resonance of his own prejudice) that he just can't keep his mouth shut. Throughout the first half of the evening, Norris does a splendid job of capturing the preening genteelness of racial insensitivity. Bev is portrayed as an upper middle class housewife (although not quite as ditzy as Edith Bunker). When Russ bitterly vents his disgust with the neighbors who were supposed to be his friends, it's obvious that he is glad to be leaving Clybourne Park and doesn't care who gets to live in the house once he and his wife are gone.

The following video shows what happens during intermission as Bev and Russ's lovely suburban home is transformed into a graffiti-laden fixer-upper.

Clybourne Park at A.C.T.: Behind the Scenes Between the Acts 
from Christine Miller on Vimeo.

Act II takes place in the exact same living room some 50 years later, as a young couple is butting heads with two current members of the Clybourne Park Improvement Association. Each side is accompanied by their attorney and speaks in the clipped, vapid vocabulary that belongs to people who are well traveled, and over educated yet remain remarkably ignorant.

Kathy (René Augesen) is the emotionally detached lawyer for Steve (Richard Thieriot) and Lindsey (Emily Kitchens), who want to do some remodeling before they move into the house that was once owned by the great aunt of Lena (Omozé Idehenre). Lena doesn't mind them moving into the neighborhood. She does, however, question their taste.

Kevin (Gregory Wallace) and Lena (Omozé Idehenre)
Photo by:  Erik Tomasson

Tom (Manuel Felciano) is the gay man acting as attorney for Lena (who is having hot flashes) and her husband, Kevin (Gregory Wallace). As steadfastly as Lena tries to say something that is important to her, she is continually stymied by cell phones, arguments over the terms in the association's contract, and wild goose chases after trivial bits of information.

When, over Lindsey's stern objection, Steve launches into a politically incorrect joke, he unlocks a Pandora's box of bad feelings. Lena adds fat to the fire with a racially charged joke of her own -- as well as the revelation of the suicide that originally caused the house to be sold below market price half a century ago. Felciano also appears as Dan, a plumber working in the back yard who makes a shocking discovery.

Clybourne Park is every bit as powerful as A Raisin in the Sun or August: Osage County. As a playwright, Norris shows remarkable skill at creating characters whose language betrays their basic ignorance and stunning insensitivity. While the cast does superb work as a dramatic ensemble, special credit goes to Emily Kitchens and Richard Thieriot for the brilliance of their characterizations.

Clybourne Park continues at A.C.T. through February 20 (you can order tickets here). This is one play you don't want to miss.

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