Monday, April 13, 2015

Finding A Place Called Hope

For those who have lived through a half century of the LGBT civil rights movement, it's sobering to look at the theatrical literature that has evolved since gays and lesbians started coming out. A quick sampling of important gay plays includes the following:

One of the most frequent quotes invoked by President Barack Obama comes from the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr.: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  Despite years of social progress for many groups that had traditionally been kept in the shadows by the media, during the Obama administration the media has become much more responsible with regard to focusing on issues that affect minorities -- from veterans and African Americans to Native Americans and the disabled.

One minority group which has enjoyed a noticeable acceleration in its political progress along the path to obtaining civil rights has been the LGBT community. From same-sex marriage to an awareness of homophobic bullying, from the end of the military's "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy to President Obama's statements about the need to end the loathsome practice of conversion therapies for gay youth, there has been a steady improvement in the recognition and understanding of LGBT issues.

While recent attempts to encode discrimination against gays in state RFRA laws have generated media storms (with some surprising results), one is constantly reminded of the famous quote from Harvey Milk "You gotta give them hope."

As a measure of how far things have progressed since Milk made his famous speech, consider the TEDx speech given last year by Thomas Lloyd, a senior at Georgetown University majoring in Science, Technology & International Affairs who coached debate students for four years at his alma mater (The Bronx High School of Science) and served as the President of GUPride (Georgetown’s LGBTQ Student group).

In 2015, it's often hard to believe that the LGBT community was once nearly invisible. For some, "the love that dare not speak its name" has become "the minority that won't shut the fuck up." But playwrights continue to mine some remarkable material in exploring the stories of people who, whether in the popular media or dramatic literature, are largely underrepresented.

Bay area audiences are currently enjoying two poignant productions which focus on a different group of underrepresented citizens: America's mountain people. From the lush beauty of the Ozarks to the hardscrabble lives of coal miners in Appalachia, these plays tear at the heart as their characters struggle with questionable futures and an overwhelming sense of emotional desperation.

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In memory of Lanford Wilson (who died on March 24, 2011), the Aurora Theatre Company is presenting two plays from Wilson's trilogy (Talley & Son, Talley's Folly, and Fifth of July) beginning with Talley's Folly, which had its world premiere on May 1, 1979 at the Circle Repertory Company with Judd Hirsch as Matt and Trish Hawkins as Sally.

As directed by Joy Carlin, Talley's Folly (which received the 1980 Pulitzer Prize for Drama) is a beautiful one-act play which offers complex, multi-layered roles for two actors. Working with a small unit set designed and lit by Jon Tracy in the Aurora Theatre's second performing space (Harry's Upstage), the cast delivers 97 minutes of pure theatrical magic. In the following clip, the playwright explains what inspired the unusual prologue he wrote for Talley's Folly.

The action takes place in the old Victorian boathouse (an architectural folly) on the Talley family's property in Lebanon, Missouri on July 4, 1944. Wilson's two scar-crossed lovers are:
  • Matt Friedman (Rolf Saxon), a middle-aged Jewish tax accountant from St. Louis who may have been born in Lithuania, but made his way to America after his family (a Prussian father, a Ukrainian mother, and a sister born in Latvia) met a horrible fate at the hands of German and French authorities during World War I. As a result of his experiences in Europe, Matt swore that he would never bring a child into this world.
  • Sally Talley (Lauren English) comes from a wealthy Protestant family in rural Missouri. An intelligent woman who graduated from a Midwestern college, she was supposed to marry her high school sweetheart, Harley Campbell, but developed a case of tuberculosis during the Great Depression which left her unable to bear children. Although she is 11 years younger than Matt, Sally's acute awareness of her diminished worth on the local marriage market has made her cynical, and wary of love -- a spinster before her time.
Rolf Saxon (Matt) and Lauren English (Sally) in a
scene from Talley's Folly (Photo by: David Allen)

While the playwright has Matt address the audience at the beginning of the drama (explaining that what they are about to witness is a waltz), one can't help but wonder if instead of Salome's famous Dance of the Seven Veils, Matt is slowly and persistently stripping away each of Sally's defense mechanisms until she finally accepts his love and agrees to marry him. It's an odd pairing of lovers who carry enough emotional baggage to sabotage any relationship. Yet Matt and Sally have each been hoping and praying for a major change in their lives.

Wilson's writing is so gorgeous, heartfelt, and simple that it elevates the tension underlying a romantic night filled with music, fireworks, and moonlight to a rare level of theatricality. In recalling his work with the playwright, Jack Viertel wrote that:
"He loved the human voice and would repeat phrases that people spoke to him as if he was turning them over in his mind for rhythm and cadence; then filed them away for future reference. And when his characters talked, it was immediately clear that his most remarkable capacity was for taking those kinds of collected phrases and turning them into the everyday poetry of the lost, the invisibly heroic, and the unheralded. He believed that everything (love, moral action, spiritual redemption) existed at the margins of life as often as at the center."
Lauren English (Sally) and Rolf Saxon (Matt) in a
scene from Talley's Folly (Photo by: David Allen) 

This touching and intimate production is blessed with two magnificent performances. Rolf Saxon is utterly charming as Matt, while, as a sadder but wiser girl, Lauren English glows with an incandescence that is remarkable in such a small performance space. Performances of Talley's Folly continue at the Aurora Theatre Company through June 7 (click here to order tickets).

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If only the people depicted in Randal Myler and Dan Wheetman's musical, Fire on the Mountain, could have a smidgen of the hope that Matt and Sally find in Talley's Folly! For some, the evening will seem like a depressing two hours of hopelessness and helplessness in the wake of ruthless corporate greed and exploitation. Others will be able to enjoy an evening of bluegrass music performed by a multi-talented ensemble consisting of Molly Andrews, Harvy Blanks, Nik Duggan, Karen Celia Heil, David M. Lutken, Tony Marcus, Robert Parsons, Marie Shell, and Harvy Yaglijian.

Molly Andrews and David M. Lutken dance together in a
scene from Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Appalachia, Fire on the Mountain was first staged in 2004 and has since been presented by the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, Florida Studio Theatre, Northlight Theatre in Chicago, Actors Theatre of Louisville, Seattle Repertory Theatre, and Denver Center Theatre Company (among others). According to the program notes:
"A celebration of Appalachian culture and the spirit of American work ethic, the text of Fire on the Mountain is composed entirely of interviews the authors conducted with coal miners and their families in Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia. An homage to a rarely explored aspect of American life, the show thoughtfully delves into the ongoing danger and struggle faced by modern coal miners. Featuring projected imagery, a soulful bluegrass score, and an ensemble cast of nine talented actor-musicians, Fire on the Mountain conjures a stirringly authentic portrait of Appalachian heritage."
A coal miner (Robert Parsons) tells his son (Nik Duggan)
to go back to school in s scene from Fire on the Mountain 
(Photo by: Kevin Berne)

Directed by Randal Myler, the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production (a regional premiere) features a unit set designed by Joe Ragey, costumes by Jill Bowers, and lighting designed by Steven B. Mannshardt. Using black-and-white slides of coal-faced miners, it follows a narrative which shows poorly-educated families struggling against poverty and slowly moves on to issues like black lung disease, miner's deaths due to unsafe working conditions, why so many coal miners' wives become widows at an early age, and the eventual organization of the coal miners to fight back against their employers.

Harvy Blanks takes a stand in a scene from
Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

As Tony Marcus explains:
"For me, the important thing about the music in Fire on the Mountain is how it reflects the lives of the miners themselves. This isn't music that's primarily written for financial gain. It's an effort to express the joy and sorrow of their lives. Bluegrass is a musical style that came into being in the 1940s. It began with professional musicians and continues to be something folks do for a living. Stylistically, it features individual soloists exhibiting virtuosic skill and fast tempos.

In contrast, what's often called old-time music is primarily an instrumental style (or combination of styles) based on fiddle and banjo, the latter often played in clawhammer style, where the notes are sounded by the back of a fingernail in a downstroke. Instrumentally, this style tends to have multiple instruments playing melodies together with less emphasis on individual improvisation than in bluegrass. With very few exceptions, old-time music is a hobby for its practitioners. We had the opportunity to perform this show about 10 years ago in southwestern Virginia, which is coal country. Every night there would be miners and miners' families in the audience. The fact that it seemed right to them was the most important validation we could possibly have."
Harry Yaglijian, David M. Lutken, and Tony Marcus as
three doomed coal miners who are trapped underground in 
Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne)

In the above photo, three miners prepare to die while singing "Shut Up in the Mines of Coal Creek." Although Fire on the Mountain is very much an ensemble effort, Molly Andrews scores strongly with "Single Girl," "Miner's Prayer," "That Twenty-five Cents," and "Black Lung." Harvy Blanks brings power and poignancy to "Coal Loadin' Blues," "Which Side Are You On?' and "Drill Man's Blues" while David M. Lutken shines while performing "Old Miner's Refrain," "Blind Fiddler," "Sprinkle Coal Dust On My Grave."

A scene from Fire on the Mountain (Photo by: Kevin Berne) 

Although Fire on the Mountain may seem like an exercise in tough love or consciousness raising for some theatregoers, I found it to be a riveting dramatic experience resting on a solid foundation of American folk music. Performances continue through April 26 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts (click here to order tickets).

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