by Byron Woods
Twitter: @byronwoods Facebook: arts.byron.woods
There’s just one problem with that second scene in Act II of Sty of the Blind Pig, Phillip Dean's 1971 Chicago domestic tenement drama which closed with an Easter Sunday matinee at Burning Coal’s Meymandi Theater. When a scene works as fiercely as that one does, you want every other moment in the show to be just as memorable.
Alberta, the largely joyless adult daughter of self-righteous busybody Weedy Warren, is recalling the funeral of her friend, Emmanuel Fisher. Since Alberta has the gift of oratory, she speaks the obituaries of the dead at their services. But this recounting, to an itinerant musician named Blind Jordan, is actually her confession to a deep attraction she felt—but never acted on—to a man who might have been the love of her life.
At first self-composed as she reads Fisher’s obituary, Alberta becomes increasingly moved as she re-envisions the funeral service, and re-sees the beautiful man in the coffin. Ultimately weeping, shouting and all but crazed with deepest grief and loss, Alberta first bends and then breaks under the weight of her emotions.
To watch Stephanie Lovick undergo that moment, under Dawn Formey’s direction, is to witness true catharsis: to see a character throw herself, as if from a cliff, into the deepest emotions—and then find the most unlikely redemption at the end of it all. It’s an all too rare experience in the theater. I was glad I was there to witness it.
Unfortunately, though, a moment that true tends to place the moments that aren’t in high contrast—which included the rest of Ms. Lovick’s performance on Friday night.
Call her a promising acting student, but one with much left to learn: For too much of the rest of the evening, Lovick seemed to be reciting lines more than engaging emotionally with them or with the characters around her.
One technique, over-employed throughout this Shaw Players production, disadvantaged such engagement: Lovick and actor Tayvein Roberson’s tendency to direct the majority of their conversational lines to the walls, the air, the audience—in short, to anything and anyone other than the person they’re talking to.
Such moments were as obvious in their dysfunction as those instances where the credibility of props and set devices punctuated our suspension of disbelief. Characters yelling at neighbors and passers-by, outdoors or across the street—through what was obviously a closed window. A man whose untipped cane skidded across the floor, providing him with no support—which he clearly didn't need in the first place. A woman who fixed a passer-by a sandwich—by pulling one, pre-made, from the fridge. And that passer-by, a man claiming to be weak with hunger and thirst, who then took one bite of that sandwich, and a sip from the glass, and left the rest—a homeless, blind blues musician who showed up with guitar in hand in his first scene, but then appeared without it for the rest of the play. Perhaps he left it...well, who knows where?
These moments and ones like them are obvious miscalculations. But enough of them occur while director Dawn Formey is acting in scenes on stage, in the role of Weedy Warren, that they reinforce the ancient—and entirely well-founded—warning against artists taking on-stage roles in shows that they’re directing.
A director’s blind spot increases significantly whenever they forsake the view from the audience. Here, the temptation was understandable: Weedy is a memorable character, a guilt-tripping hypocrite of the first order who can cite the Good Book in one breath—and mercilessly gossip, slander and scorn her daughter, her brother and a blind stranger in the next.
Formey’s performance in the role is rich and vivid. It is also clearly overplayed in a couple of key scenes. At those points she was as much in need of a director to effectively contour her performance as the rest of the actors on stage.
But that, as they say, is why it’s called temptation. Formey’s clearly a strong actor. She knew she could do the role. But when she had to focus on her own work on-stage—and lost the big picture of how scenes looked from the audience—a number of issues went undiagnosed and unaddressed in this production. Though Jade Arnold gave a nuanced, enigmatic performance as Blind Jordan, Lovick needed more character work and direction, as did Roberson, who remained decades too young for the role of Doc, Weedy’s alcoholic mooch of a brother supposedly in his mid-fifties.
For an artist so taken with such a major character in a show, Formey would have been well advised to delegate direction to other, trusted hands this time out. Ultimately, such a move would have best served not only her role but her production.