Tender Tale of Friendship and Sacrifice at Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
February 22, 2013
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Morgan played by Elliott Bales, Angus by Paul Tamney and Miles by Daniel Westbrook - Photo Credit Michael deBlois

Morgan played by Elliott Bales, Angus by Paul Tamney and Miles by Daniel Westbrook – Photo Credit Michael deBlois

Michael Healey’s The Drawer Boy, performed by Port City Playhouse is by turns a darkly funny and deeply poignant piece of theater that examines the bonds of friendship and the deeds that define altruism.  It’s the summer of 1972 in rural Ontario, Canada when Miles (Daniel G. Westbrook), an aspiring young playwright looking for material for his drama class at a nearby college, arrives at the door of a rundown farmhouse offering to lend a hand in exchange for a glimpse of farm life.  What follows is a tightly crafted piece of theater that reveals two men bound together by tragedy and loss, and another whose observations and willingness to listen afford a kind of healing.  The powerful tragicomedy is reminiscent of the Rain Man and George and Lennie’s relationship in Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. 

Morgan (Elliott Bales) and Angus (P. Spencer Tamney) were boyhood friends who served together in London during World War II.  One night in a bombing raid, Angus was hit by an explosive resulting in his inability to remember anything for more than a short time.  “All he knows is right now!” Morgan tells Miles, though Angus’s mathematical calculations are as skillful as a savant.  Still Morgan strives to keep day-to-day life unchallenging to avoid provoking Angus’s migraine-inducing memories.

With his notebook at the ready, Miles records the pair’s every word searching for insights along with farming wisdom.  Angus is eager to recount what little he remembers of his life before the accident, but Morgan, who discusses the price of eggs with the same intensity as he pulls the wool over Mile’s eyes, tries to keep the dramatist at arm’s length, telling him to rise at three a.m. to rotate the crops from one field to another, “You break it up into pieces no bigger than you,” he teases the visiting rube, while instructing him to pick corn kernels out of cow puddles with a serving fork.

The Drawer Boy - Angus & Morgan  - Photo Credit Michael deBlois

The Drawer Boy – Angus & Morgan –  Photo Credit Michael deBlois

It is only when Miles looking for a deeper understanding of their lives begins to extract Angus’s long hidden emotions that the men’s painful story is revealed and the tragedy of their lives unfolds.

Michael Healey’s drama comes out of a true story of a group of actors who in the 1970’s visited the heartland of Canadian farms interviewing farmers and their families and learning their stories.  Nearly a quarter of a century later, after meeting with the same people whose stories were used in the project, Healey was inspired to write The Drawer Boy as a tribute.  [Reviewer’s note: In the interest of clarification, Angus is the “drawer boy”, a reference to his skill at rendering architectural plans.  Though until this fact was revealed in the second act, I had been nervously awaiting a small child to emerge from a drawer.]

 Jennifer Lyman directs this unforgettable play produced by Carol Strachan and Alan Wray.  It’s the perfect cast and the perfect piece for Port City Playhouse’s continuing season of thought-provoking socially relevant theater.

At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  Performances are on the following dates – February 22nd, 23rd, and March 1st, 2nd, 5th, 8th and 9th at 8pm and matinees on March 2nd and 9th at 2pm.  For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.

Crack Cast Wows in The Soul Collector at Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
November 5, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

The Soul Collector brings us into the Cleveland, Ohio junk-strewn home of two African-American men, Darnell (Chaz D. Pando) and his uncle Cedric (DeJeanette Horne).  It’s 1972 and the men are city sanitation workers.  Cedric has raised the boy since his parents died in an auto accident.  We are greeted by a set filled with nostalgia of the day – old skis, a Snoopy phone, a sled, mementoes of everyday life plus shelves of figurines – the sort ladies kept on fireplace mantels.

Darnell is an untalented but doggedly aspiring Motown songwriter whose passion for music is turning Christmas carols into love songs while plunking out the melodies on a tiny child’s piano.  He is locked in a time warp since the day he lost his parents in a Christmas Eve auto accident when he was a child.  Cedric has a different plan.  He hopes Darnell will be his partner in a chicken wing restaurant.  “This is a calling,” he insists trying to convince his nephew.  “Maybe it’s the wrong number!” snaps Darnell urging his uncle to forget about waitresses sporting huge chicken wings.

Chaz Pando (l) as Darnell and DeJeannette Horne (r) as Cedric - photo credit to Michael deBlois

Chaz Pando (l) as Darnell and DeJeannette Horne (r) as Cedric – photo credit to Michael deBlois

Their neighbors, Mr. and Mrs. Coleman (played by Donnell S. Boykin and Kecia A. Campbell respectively), are both their landlords as well as their close friends, visiting the apartment and delivering some of the funniest lines of the show.

When a shape-shifting spirit pops out of a box and into their lives, they agree to join forces to help her back to life.  Claire (played by Lolita-Marie) is cursed by two spirits with unrequited deaths – a man who’s a washed-up Jewish talent agent and a Japanese girl killed in Nagasaki in World War II.  They decide to care for her by confronting their fears, speaking truth to their lives and letting go of past wrongs.

Washington, DC playwright and actor David Emerson Toney has written a haunting yet redemptive story in comic drama form using a mash up of familiar themes from The Jeffersons, In Living Color (where Toney was a staff writer in the ‘90’s) and Sanford and Sons as a stepping off point.  He has kept the feistiness and the ethnic humor we remember from these beloved characters from the 70’s hipster genre, but in this play our characters are have more developed personalities and the plot has deeper import.  We can no longer treat them as one-dimensional comedic figures, but are compelled to climb into their skins and even more into their souls.

Cris Dinwiddie as Wisher - photo credit to Michael deBlois

Cris Dinwiddie as Wisher – photo credit to Michael deBlois

When Wisher (Cristopher Dinwiddie) appears in the guise of a morlock threatening to co-opt their lives and wreak vengeance they must rise to each other’s defense.  Dinwiddie is brilliant, plumbing the depths of evil personified.

Director Deirdre Starnes has assembled a wondrous cast with no weak links. And kudos to Set Designer/Master Carpenter/Co-Lighting Designer, Frank Pasqualino, who has his masterful handprint on this dramatic production.  It’s a perfect piece for Port City Playhouse – deeply affecting coupled with powerful acting.  I would see it again for the crack performances if only I could steel my mind against its haunting imagery.

At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  Performances continue on these dates – November 9, 10, 13, 16, 17 at 8pm and November 10 and 17 at 2pm for matinees.  For tickets and information call 703 838-2880 or email PortCityInfo.com for reservations or visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.

Medea September 2012 – Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
September 24, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Warning: Spoiler Alert.  The plot of Medea will be revealed here.  For those of you who are without knowledge of Greek mythology, you may want to stop reading now. Others, whose memories of Jason and Medea may be just a tad rusty, might find it handy to bone up with this truncated recap.

For starters Jason dumps Medea, wife and mother of his two boys, to marry a younger hotter babe whose father, Creon, is the filthy rich King of Corinth.  Nothing modern-day sociologists would find surprising.  But in twenty-four hours his adoring spouse will be banished from the kingdom to live on the mean streets of Greece without so much as a drachma to her name.  No social safety net in place then, but heaps of public scorn and the usual pariah status.  But Medea will not go gently into that good night.  “Oh triple fool,” she cries out, “You have given me time.”  And a plot that makes The War of the Roses look like an exercise in marital merriment thickens.

As soul sister to the sorceress Hecate, “Help me to remember the venomous fire!” she implores the Queen of the Night, Medea’s knowledge of potions and the Dark Arts is legendary and spot on deadly.  And you know what they say about Hell having no fury like a woman scorned, especially a woman who has already betrayed her father and murdered her brother to promote her husband’s social standing.  Jason should have known he’d get his head handed to him.

Ah, “the violence of love,” the Muses wail, trying to dissuade Medea from her retribution.  But there’s no stopping the avenging soon-to-be ex-wife from calling on the gods of the underworld to back her up.  Woe betide to our hapless Argonaut.  That’s some vindictive crew.

Anissa Parekh, a skillful actor, played the lead trained at both the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory as well as the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Anissa Parekh

Marking the beginning of its 35th anniversary is Port City Playhouse’s presentation of Medea with Anissa Parekh playing the lead.  Remember that name.  Parekh, who was trained at both the Studio Theatre Acting Conservatory as well as the Shakespeare Theatre Company, is a skillful actor, whose knowledge of stagecraft is immediately evident.  It is thanks to her that this production has meat on its ancient bones.  Her ability to center the other performers by dint of her powerful stage presence saves it from drowning in the Aegean Sea.

Though I am a huge fan of PCP and their bold choices, this drama does not have the usual high caliber of performances, except for the commanding presence of Parekh.  Costumes are neither period nor contemporary but a hodgepodge of 30’s, ‘40’s and 50’s retro dresses with aprons and randomly chosen military uniforms for some of the men.  The primitive set includes a small refrigerator used as a stool, several chairs and a panel with double doors situated at the edge of the raised stage.  A black box theatre style would have been less distracting than watching actors yank at sticky doors while trying to wriggle through the narrow space without toppling off the proscenium.  Somewhere Dionysus and The Muses are cringing.  But notwithstanding these awkward production values and throwaway supporting roles, see it for Parekh.  Her Medea is memorable.

At The Lab at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  Performances continue on these dates – September 25, 28, 29 at 8pm and September 22 and 29 at 2pm.  For tickets and information call 703 838-2880 or email PortCityInfo.com for reservations or visit www.portcityplayhouse.org.

Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me – Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
April 30, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

David James plays Adam (the American), Matthew Randall plays Edward (the Irishman) and John Shackleford plays Michael (the Englishman) - photo credit to Mike deBlois

David James plays Adam (the American), Matthew Randall plays Edward (the Irishman) and John Shackleford plays Michael (the Englishman) - photo credit to Mike deBlois

There’s an inner peace that washes over your soul when you are immersed in a drama so powerful, so exquisitely acted and so heart wrenching, that you want to share the earthmoving experience with all your fellow theatre-goers.  Luckily in this space I can.  The only caveat is to make haste since Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me runs just one more weekend.

In a drama punctuated with moments of lighthearted gallows humor and male bonding, three men are imprisoned in a tiny cell in Beirut.   The hostages, Edward, an Irish journalist; Adam, an American doctor; and Michael, an English teacher from Britain are shackled and chained to a communal wall for an indeterminate sentence.

Most of us remember this story from news reports filled with harrowing tales of torture and execution at the hand of self-described Islamic Jihadists.  Playwright Frank McGuiness loosely bases his Drama Critics Circle award winning play on the real lives of Brian Keenan, John McCarthy and Terry Anderson during the time they were held hostage in Lebanon in 1985 and 1986.  McGuiness extrapolated Keenan’s experiences from lengthy discussions about his time in captivity, and used them to form the backbone of the drama.  In order to prepare the actors before rehearsal started, Director Rosemary Hartman gave each of them Keenan’s unflinchingly honest recounting, Evil Cradling, wherein Keenan poses the question, ”Just as I was chained in darkness for almost five years, my captors were chained to their guns in a profound darkness I could see into.  Tell me now, who is the prisoner here?”

The piece opens with slo-mo news footage of the war in Lebanon during the decade between 1982 and 1992 when between 130,000-200,000 people were killed and more than 1 million were wounded.  In stark contrast to the lulling strains of classical music the images are projected against the set’s prison walls.  We don’t hear the bullets and bombs, but we bear witness to the brutal gunfights and the total destruction of cities.  It was a horrendous period when random kidnappings were the order of the day and the ignominy of America and its allies was the incomprehensible goal.  As the lights come up Ella Fitzgerald’s evocative rendition of Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me plays in the background and we’re greeted by a set design by Frank Pasqualino that is so end-of-the-world grim that one instantly senses the prisoners’ isolation.

Someone who'll watch - Matthew Randall, John Shackleford - photo credit to Mike deBlois.

Someone who'll watch - Matthew Randall, John Shackleford - photo credit to Mike deBlois.

David James plays Adam (the American), Matthew Randall plays Edward (the Irishman) and John Shackleford plays Michael (the Englishman) - photo credit to Mike deBlois

David James plays Adam (the American), Matthew Randall plays Edward (the Irishman) and John Shackleford plays Michael (the Englishman) - photo credit to Mike deBlois

During their brutal confinement the hostages probe one another’s psyches and explore their innermost lives, trying to keep their spirits up until their hoped-for rescue.  Their methods in the face of such adversity are both inspired and inspiring.  One can’t help but wonder what diversions we would employ ourselves under the same dire circumstances.

The play’s moods swing back and forth like a pendulum with lightning quick transitions from misery to comedy as the men regale each other with humerous tales designed to relieve the tedium, promising each other not to let the guards hear them cry.  Adam, played by David James, is afraid of going mad.  Clutching a bible for support, he is haunted by memories of his life as an only son in a house full of foster children.  “Will they kill me for oil?” he wonders of the guards.  Matthew Randall plays Edward who claims “foreplay” was invented by the Irish.  “We call it drink!” he jokes as he fake-bartends martinis.  Together they reenact old films, perform childhood vignettes and fake-broadcast horse races to pass the time until one night Michael, played by John Shackelford, is delivered comatose into their shared cell and their awkward camaraderie is rearranged.  Though initially regarded as an intruder, Michael, the stoic, becomes a stabilizing factor to the gradually declining spirits of the other two.

With this latest production Port City Playhouse continues to impress, especially when tackling bold dramatic themes.  In Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me superlatives go to the entire ensemble whose outstanding performances are nothing short of brilliant.  Special mention goes to Lighting Designer, Julie Anne Watko, who does a fine job creating and handling 100 lighting changes and video montages, as well as Accent Coach, Carol Strachan, who has set the authenticity bar higher than ever.

Poignant, riveting and perfectly cast.  Highly recommended.

At Port City Playhouse.  Final performances May 4th and 5th at 8pm with an additional May 5th matinee at 2pm at The Lab Studio Theatre at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.com.

Dive in the Water’s Fine – The Dixie Swim Club at Port City Playhouse

Jordan Wright
February 25, 2012
Special to The Alexandria Times
 

Tina Anderson, Kacie Greenwood, and Gayle Grimes - Photo Credit Eddie Page

Tina Anderson, Kacie Greenwood and Gayle Grimes - photo credit Eddie Page

For whatever reason the thought of attending a class reunion can turn even the most sensible woman into a bundle of nerves.  Will an old flame turn up?  Can I lose 10 pounds in two weeks?  What will I wear?  And should I book a hair and Botox appointment on the same day?  Mercifully none of these options are considered by The Dixie Swim Club, whose reunion is an all-girl affair in this rollicking bit of sitcom froth from Port City Playhouse.  Faithfully returning to a modest cottage on North Carolina’s Outer Banks, five former swim team members make an annual pilgrimage to recapture their glory days.  And though one of the ladies prefers to vamp for the men at the fruit stand, swapping tattoo views for blueberries, the women are mostly there to rekindle their friendships.

Dixie Swim Club - Anderson, Hayes. Grimes, Mitchell & Greenwood - Photo credit Eddie PageDixie Swim Club - Anderson, Hayes. Grimes, Mitchell & Greenwood - Photo credit Eddie Page

Anderson, Hayes. Grimes, Mitchell & Greenwood - photo credit Eddie Page

Sheree Hollinger (Tina Anderson) is the group’s ex officio life coach, a no-nonsense drill sergeant cum cheerleader with a knack for organizing and a penchant for bizarre health food munchies, much to the horror of Lexie Richards (Barbara Hayes), an endearing mantrap dripping with Southern charm and sass who calls Sheree’s seaweed canapés of mung bean paste, goji berries and heron oil, “regurgitated ferret food.”  A self-acknowledged proponent of three-year marriages and facelifts, she cycles through spouses like a washing machine.  “The trouble with husbands,” she admonishes, “is they always say they’ll die for you…but they never do!”  Her counterpoint, Dinah Grayson (Kacie Greenwood), a spine-straight Atlanta corporate lawyer, prefers the boardroom to the bedroom and martinis to men.

Jeri Neal McFeeley (Laura Champe Mitchell), who “genuflects at the sight of Miracle Whip”, is a nun reaching out for a second chance at life outside the convent.  Her polar opposite is the wisecracking Vernadette Simms (Gayle Nichols-Grimes), an accident-prone perpetually unemployed housewife.  “Vern” reports on her children’s regular incarcerations and sermonizes on the joys of biscuit baking.

Dixie Swim Club - Greenwood & Hayes - Photo credit Eddie Page

Greenwood and Hayes - photo credit Eddie Page

The humorous yet sweetly sentimental play, by the veteran comedy writing team of Jessie Jones, Nicholas Hope and Jamie Wooten (you’ll love the comic slugfest if you’re a fan of Wooten’s long-running series, The Golden Girls), covers three decades of the women’s personal triumphs and failures marking time with cocktail-fueled weekends of swill-and-tell.

The entire cast is up for the snappy repartee with Nichols-Grimes stealing the show with her deadpan delivery .  Director Eddie Page, a self-confessed veteran of “guys” weekends at Nags Head, handily taps into the zeitgeist to achieve an evening that goes down like a well chilled martini served straight up.

Dixie Swim Club - Anderson, Grimes, Greenwood & Hayes - Photo credit Dixie Swim Club - Greenwood & Hayes - Photo credit Eddie Page

Anderson, Grimes, Greenwood and Hayes - photo credit Eddie Page

Port City Playhouse through March 10th at The Lab Studio Theatre at Convergence, 1819 North Quaker Lane, Alexandria, VA 22302.  For tickets and information visit www.portcityplayhouse.com