The Year of Magical Thinking ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 16, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Cente . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Joan Didion’s 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking forms the basis of this one-woman monologue starring Oscar-winning film and stage star Kathleen Turner.  The dramatic version of which first appeared on Broadway in 2007.  Much has been written about Didion’s style of writing, both before her death and after.  But whether favorable or not, she was considered one of the most important writer/journalist/essayists of her time.  In a way she ushered in the “Me” generation with her self-absorbed, edgy style of writing.  You either like her, or you don’t.  Either way you slice it, she was an influential voice for decades. 

The plot chronicle’s Didion’s personal journey while mourning the tragic loss of her husband, author John Gregory Dunne and tending to her ailing daughter, Quintana, who lies in a comatose state.  From her early life in New York City as part of an elite group of writers (a 70’s version of the famed Algonquin Round Table), to her later life in fashionable Brentwood and Malibu enclaves, “I drove my Corvette down the PHC [Pacific Coast Highway for you non-Californians],” she quips, the conservative Republican author was eager to be regarded as a style-setter with the street cred of a bi-coastal, jet-setting journalist and wife of a successful Hollywood screenwriter. 

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, October 7-November 20, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Kathleen Turner as Joan Didion in The Year of Magical Thinking at Arena Stage at the Mead Center. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

In this drama the grieving Didion explores her mental breakdown during the most disastrous year of her life warning us repeatedly that, “This will happen to you,” as a way of explaining what can and will befall an ordinary life.  With the discipline of a scholar, and naming the posh hospital she held vigil in, “Doctors Hospital, which became Beth Israel Medical Center, was right across from Gracie Mansion,” she proudly quips, she takes comfort in memorizing diagnoses and researching medical treatments and medications.  Struggling to maintain her sanity, she micro-manages the doctors and nurses and chronologizes her daughter’s failing health.  Some of it is humorous – though you can imagine feeling pity for the nurses she abuses – and some of it is superficial, as she namedrops her celebrity pals and notes her fondest memory of her daughter is her blond hair bleached by the California sun. 

In her attempt to grapple with the day-to-day realities of planning her husband’s funeral and caring for her daughter, she seizes on primitive man’s anthropological concept of “magical thinking”.  But notwithstanding her attempts at the spiritual, she soon learns that all of her maneuvering can’t protect her from the anguish and the debilitating vortex of despair.  

Director Gaye Taylor Upchurch does a fine job of keeping the pace lively and Turner proves a more than capable candidate to channel Didion’s internal conflicts. 

Through November 20th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org. 

The Little Foxes Brings Lillian Hellman Festival to Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
October 1, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

(L to R) Megan Graves as Alexandra Giddens and Kim James Bey as Addie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Megan Graves as Alexandra Giddens and Kim James Bey as Addie in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes . Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Artistic Director Molly Smith kicked off the theatre’s Lillian Hellman Festival, with one of the playwright’s better-known plays, The Little Foxes. Hellman, one of America’s greatest women writers, was an iconoclast whose career spanned six decades. Branded a Communist during the McCarthy era and blacklisted in Hollywood, she nevertheless continued her groundbreaking work for the stage. With this play she exposed the dark underbelly of the South during the turn of the 20th century, weaving together themes of racism and internecine family rivalry. The drama is said to be based on her great uncles and aunt.

(L to R) Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard and Stanton Nash as Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard and Stanton Nash as Leo Hubbard in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

It portrays the Hubbards, a family whose successes and failures are umbilically linked by greed and jealousy. The brothers, Benjamin (Edward Gero) and Oscar (Gregory Linington), run the family business with young Leo (Stanton Nash). In an effort to shore up their failing cotton plantation, they strike a deal with a Northern businessman, William Marshall (James Whalan) to modernize their operation. But their sister, Regina Hubbard Giddens, a woman of considerable connivance (played by the incomparable Marg Helgenberger), is determined to get a cut of the deal.

Regina is married to the much older and wheelchair-bound Horace (Jack Willis), a man of considerable fortune. However, as primogeniture was the custom of the period, and women did not inherit estates, Regina envisions a far more glamorous future for herself when Horace passes.

 (L to R) Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard, Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Isabel Keating as Birdie Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, running September 23–October 30, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Edward Gero as Benjamin Hubbard, Gregory Linington as Oscar Hubbard, Isabel Keating as Birdie Hubbard and Marg Helgenberger as Regina Giddens in Lillian Hellman’s The Little Foxes at Arena Stage. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Isabel Keating plays Oscar’s wife Birdie, whose vast plantation, Lyonette, the Hubbards now have in their control. In other words, the conniving Oscar has married her for her lands and she’s been taken to the cleaners. Her son Leo is equally as unscrupulous – finding a way to steal the funds necessary to close the deal without Horace’s approval.

Fortified by a decanter of elderberry wine, Keating’s Birdie affords us the most amusing, and bittersweet, highlight of the drama. Add to that fine performances from Kim James Bey as Addie and David Emerson Toney as Cal.

Director Kyle Donnelly’s staging lends an ominous air to the deceit and collusion between Oscar, Leo and Ben, and later Regina. It’s enough to make your hair stand on end.

Set Designer Mikiko Suzuki Macadams presents us with an opulent Victorian living room with raised dining room and a stark treeless backdrop and Jess Goldstein gives us period costumes to match.

Warning: Do not jump out of your seat, as I did, when you hear the “N” word which occurs several times during the course of the play.

Through October 30th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For information and tickets for the Lillian Hellman Festival visit www.arenastage.org/hellman-festival or call 202 488-3300.

Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
July 10, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times

 (L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Checking out the program before curtain up, I counted 27 original numbers with two reprises. How would we get through all these tunes, I pondered?  But BeBe Winans, who wrote the music and lyrics, uses snippets of songs to underpin his story and what a surprising saga it is.

Working alongside of Director and Co-Scriptwriter, Charles Randolph-Wright (Motown the Musical), the collaborators regale us with the four elder Winans brothers’ rise to fame which came before BeBe (played by real life nephew, Juan Winans) and sister CeCe’s (played by real life niece, Deborah Joy Winans) road to glory on the The PTL Club.

(L to R) Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Chaz Pofahl as Jim Bakker and Kirsten Wyatt as Tammy Faye Bakker in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Back in the 80’s the PTL (Praise the Lord) Television Network show was the number one global evangelical Christian station then hosted by the illustrious Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker.  For those of us who thought of the Bakkers as “whitebread” as they come, the story stunningly reveals that it was Tammy Faye and Jim (Chaz Pofahl as Tammy’s straying husband) who sheltered the gospel singing teens from the racist threats of the station’s Southern listeners who preferred cutesy, saccharine singing groups like Up With People.

Clearly BeBe and CeCe’s early success is inexorably linked to the Bakkers who raised the kids as their own and are as intrinsic to the story as that of the Winans’ own family.   It also provides us with some of the funniest lines.  As Winan’s mother Cynthia puts it when she discovers they’ve been signed to the show, “Ooh!  Those are some crazy Caucasians!”

 (L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Juan Winans as BeBe, Kiandra Richardson as Whitney Houston and Deborah Joy Winans as CeCe in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Much of the action takes place on Set Designer, Neil Patel’s rendering of PTL’s live stage where teleprompters urge listeners to donate and Tammy Faye (Kirsten Wyatt) skitters around shrieking “Thank you, Jesus!!!” in capital letters affectionately referring to the Winan kids as her ‘chocolate drops’ or ‘chocolate babies’.  Her ignorance notably preceding her affection for the teens.  Wyatt is phenomenal as Tammy Faye and plays it to the hilt, just as Tammy did in real life and the show overflows with highlights both lyrical and emotional.  Artistic Director Molly Smith calls it a “story of faith and redemption”, and the arrival of Whitney Houston (Kiandra Richardson), a close friend and advisor to the Winans, seconds that claim.

Outstanding are Nita Whitaker, as Mom Winans, whose spellbinding crystal clear voice shows itself on “Seventh Son”, Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans, the no-nonsense dad who triumphs in “I Got a Home”, Brad Raymond with the Teddy Pendergrass voice as brother Ronald, and BeBe and Penny (Alison Whitehurst) BeBe’s White girlfriend, dueting on “Forbidden Love”, a ballad destined to become a classic.

(L to R) Nita Whitaker as Mom Winans and Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

(L to R) Nita Whitaker as Mom Winans and Milton Craig Nealy as Pop Winans in Born for This: The BeBe Winans Story, which runs July 1-August 28, 2016 at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater. Photo by Greg Mooney, courtesy Alliance Theatre.

Costumes by famed Broadway designer William Ivey Long (Hairspray, Cinderella, Crazy for You) are totally spot on, especially for Tammy Faye if you remember those shoulder pads that launched into outer space, and the cutesy matching outfits of the PTL singers.  Long and Wig Designer Lashawn Melton follow the styles of BeBe and CeCe as their wardrobe and hairstyles become ever more sophisticated with Houston’s assistance.

As it stands now, the musical is overly long – 2 ½ hours – even with the short songs.  But how to cut the rich, lush tones of these voluptuous voices and the come-to-Jesus gospel sounds of the Winans?  And who would want to?

Highly recommended.

Through August 28th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

Disgraced ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
May 3, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Nehal Joshi as Amir, with Joe Isenberg, Felicia Curry and Ivy Vahanian, in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Nehal Joshi as Amir, with Joe Isenberg, Felicia Curry and Ivy Vahanian, in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

A cruel wind descended onto the stage in the Kreeger Theatre with Disgraced.  It swept over five intimately connected characters, unmasking their prejudices and ripping their psyches to smithereens.  It left Emily, Amir, Abe, Isaac and Jory and their harmonic one-world aspirations in its wake.  Upsetting friendships and loyalties, the play is about our words as much as our actions and it made me long for a sequel.

Playwright Ayad Akhtar doesn’t hold out much hope for us humans, not even for educated, sophisticated, liberal New Yorkers where his drama is set.  He forces us to examine the roots of our bigotry by drawing it to the surface and exposing its presumptions.  Who do we become when we are offended by someone of another race?  How superficial or deeply held are our personal relationships, our loyalties to one another, our religious beliefs?  In this play we see how flimsy are the underpinnings, how vulnerable we all are, and how quickly we descend into hatred and fear with an insensitive remark or ill-considered assumption.  Our emotions and frustrations are not so very far beneath the surface, Akhtar seems to say.

(L to R) Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Nehal Joshi as Amir and Ivy Vahanian as Emily in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Emily (Ivy Vahanian) is an artist in love with Islam and its beautifully articulated symbols.  She is married to Amir (Nehal Joshi), a successful New York attorney, working in a Jewish law firm.  Amir has been hiding the fact that he is actually Pakistani, a dangerous admission in this post 9/11 world, and intentionally fudges his job application to promote himself as of Indian heritage.  Conflicted by his Muslim heritage and married to a Christian American, he readily repudiates the 7th century precepts of the Koran and the sexism and intolerance adopted by extremist factions.  But when his life and career fall apart can he truly rid himself of those early lessons of prejudice and intolerance? Can anyone?

(L to R) Samip Raval as Abe and Nehal Joshi as Amir in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Samip Raval as Abe and Nehal Joshi as Amir in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Abe (Samip Raval), his nephew, is a careless youth, defiant of convention and desperate to fit into a society that has already made him an outcast.  When his imam gets in trouble with the law, Emily is determined that Amir should defend him, even though her husband fears jeopardizing his position in the firm to take up the case of a man who has been labeled a terrorist.

(L to R) Joe Isenberg as Isaac and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

(L to R) Joe Isenberg as Isaac and Felicia Curry as Jory in Disgraced at Arena Stage at the Mead Center for American Theater, April 22-May 29, 2016. Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

An ostensibly lapsed Jew, Isaac (Joe Isenberg), Emily’s agent and their mutual friend, is married to Jory (Felicia Curry), an African American attorney working alongside Amir.  Isaac assures Emily her cultural appropriation of Islamic symbols in her paintings is acceptable. “Without the Arabs we wouldn’t have visual perspective,” he declares.  We soon discover that what sounds rational in the abstract, does not necessarily square with one’s emotional reactions in the real world.

Director Timothy Douglas does a superb job of ramping up and cooling down the explosive revelations while still maintaining a steady pace, and Tony Cisek’s sleek mid-century modern set proves to be a deceptive distraction to the tension.

Divided into segments, the one-act play centers around a liquor-fueled dinner party among the friends, devolving into a racially-charged, rage-filled examination of our conflicting beliefs – where they come from, how deeply ingrained they are in our psyches, and if we have the ability, or desire, to overcome the prejudices and precepts of religion in modern society.

Intense both emotionally and politically, it raises our consciousness to the complex issues facing society today.  And that’s a good thing.  Flawless performances all around.

Through May 29th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.

All the Way ~ Arena Stage

Jordan Wright
April 11, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Robert Schenkkan’s exhilarating play, All the Way, allows us to step into the very large Texas boots of our 36th President.  Set between November of 1963 and November of 1964, it is set in the time of Lyndon Baines Johnson’s sudden and untimely ascension to the presidency and his efforts toward passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Adrienne Nelson as Muriel Humphrey, Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson, John Scherer as Walter Jenkins and Susan Rome as Lady Bird Johnson. Photo by Stan Barouh.

All the pivotal players of the period are represented and the cast adopts many roles in filling in for the lesser characters.  Jack Willis offers up a formidable LBJ, strident, bullying, oftimes terrifying yet indelibly effective, larger-than-life president at the peak of his powers.  Then there’s Lady Bird (Susan Rome), Walter Jenkins (John Scherer), George Wallace (Cameron Folmar) and his wife Lurleen Wallace (Adrienne Nelson), Richard Clodfelter as Hubert Humphrey, Richmond Hoxie as the slithery, red-baiting J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as his henchman Cartha DeLoach, David Bishins as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Tom Wiggin as Stanley Levison, the white civil rights activist.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) JaBen Early as Stokely Carmichael, David Emerson Tony as Roy Wilkins, Desmond Bing as Bob Moses, Craig Wallace as Ralph Abernathy and Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr.. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Pitted against the lawmakers, influence peddlers and power brokers were those black Americans who had been lobbying tirelessly for voting rights and anti-discrimination laws.  Maintaining peace between the activists, the protesters and church representatives were Martin Luther King, Jr. (Bowman Wright), NAACP leader Roy Wilkins (David Emerson Toney) and Ralph Abernathy (Craig Wallace) who kept the younger, more outspoken SNCC student activists, led by Stokely Carmichael (Jaben Early) and Bob Moses (Desmond Bing), from squandering an opportunity to change the course of history.  Shannon Dorsey becomes an integral part of this flawless cast as Coretta Scott King.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Bowman Wright as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Shannon Dorsey as Coretta Scott King. Photo by Stan Barouh.

There are so many knock-out performances to chronicle, but most memorable are LBJ, MLK, Lady Bird and Wallace, whose stump speech echoes a few of today’s presidential candidates and will throw chills up your spine.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Stephen F. Schmidt, David Emerson Tony, Richard Clodfelter and Lawrence Redmond. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Under Kyle Donnelly’s superb direction this groundbreaking production emerges as a riveting tale of back door dealings, arm-twisting, personal threats and bullying, ameliorated by a hefty dose of schmoozing, drinking and ego-stroking in the Oval Office.  LBJ made it his business to find everyone’s Achilles’ heel and capitalize on it, even brutalize it if he needed to.  As to succeeding at passing the Civil Rights Act, he declares, “I’m gonna out-Roosevelt, Roosevelt!”  The story presents Johnson warts and all – from Southern charm and foul language to his innate political savvy.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

(L to R) Richmond Hoxie as J. Edgar Hoover and Stephen F. Schmidt as Cartha “Deke” DeLoach. Photo by Stan Barouh.

No interaction between the characters is stagnant with Set Designer Kate Edmunds’ rotating presidential seal depicting the Oval Office.  Players step on and off, circulating, converging and dispersing.  It is hugely effective lending an intense and immediate energy.  Less effective are the multiple TV screens above the stage, so compelling is the action on stage.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

Jack Willis as President Lyndon Baines Johnson and the cast. Photo by Stan Barouh.

When at last the bill sees passage after all Johnson’s wrangling, he admits, “There’s no gracious losers.  There’s no sore losers – just the walking dead.”  There’s a whiff of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, a memorable speech by civil rights leader Fannie Lou Hamer, and a dramatic turn in recalling the tragedy of the three murdered students, killed while trying to register black voters registered in Mississippi.

Highly recommended.  (N. B. There is a wealth of salty language, inappropriate for children.)

Through May 8th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024.  For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.