He looks the very ghost of Burgess Meredith as he squints disapprovingly through a shock of unruly, sandy hair, briar tobacco pipe in hand, sizing up his latest mark. But one of the unsought hazards in having an actor like Dane Knell on stage is this: Everyone else has to match his level of believability in performance.
Given Knell's work as Phil Hogan, that irascible Irish old sinner in Triad Stage's production of A Moon for the Misbegotten , that's a tall order. As directed by Preston Lane (and assisted by costumier Kelsey Hunt's dusty overalls and cap), he vividly paints a prickly old reprobate who, even with his distinctive brogue, doesn't appear to have set foot on a miserable rockpile disguised as a Connecticut farm.
No, it seems far likelier he sprung up from it instead--alongside his brethren, the thistles and the poison ivy. Forget his status as tenant farmer; the man and the land go together. Both seem very much at home in the other's company.
There: If you're an actor, imagine keeping up with that.
Lise Bruneau is clearly game from the start as his daughter, the rough-edged Josie. This, despite Hunt's miscalculation of an opening costume, a relatively smart blue ensemble--one that appears completely out of place for a working day on a lower-class hardscrabble farm.
Bruneau and Lane's interpretation of the character seems to grow increasingly reserved as the evening's hours pass.
In itself, this is hardly beyond the pale. Though her father Phil and brother Mike call her the neighborhood scandal and deride her easy ways with men--and Josie agrees with their assessment--other parts of O'Neill's script seem to deconstruct the claim.
Why can't such a seducer get to first base with a man who's drunk and already attracted to her? Not being able to have Jim Tyrone, the only man she really wants, is its own critique of her claim that she can take any man she chooses.
And what sort of barroom bawd chokes on her first sip of bonded bourbon before coughing and spewing it out? Not an experienced one, it seems. These and other clues raise the question: Just how far would a woman with low self-esteem to begin with not have to go once she'd been branded--for whatever reason--as indecent in her speech?
But if the peculiar innocence (and even stranger virtue) of the pair puzzle us to this day in O'Neill's play, they're still far too easily undone by a fundamental lack of chemistry between the actors who play the two.
Under Lane's direction, Matthew Mabe affects a tough-guy front as Jim--in keeping with the actor's nearly Cagneyesque profile. The flaw: His attraction to Josie never rises above the hypothetical. When their moonlit date goes into extra innings, hidden desires (as opposed to duties) stay far too hidden during a decidedly long, dark night of the soul--one which simply dragged beyond a point, in a way last month's production at Deep Dish didn't.
The walls of designer Howard Jones' humble tenant farmhouse seem already to have been visited by flames. Their charcoal facade is echoed by what appear to be giant sheets of paper burned to ash, suspended from above at the corners of the stage--macabre, twisted forms suggesting trees surrounding Hogan's failing farm.
Jones should trust the strength of his images more: One of these devices sufficiently symbolizes what remains after passion burns completely out. The presence of both sacrifices all subtlety while needlessly underlining things.
But the sum of this production remains decidedly less than its parts when two perfectly commendable interpretations of Josie and Jim never mesh, ignite or even truly smoulder. When these two have their difficulties, the third, Phil, remains more memorable, more believable--which isn't what O'Neill had in mind.
Credit where credit is richly due: Staff at Playmakers Rep confirmed last week that Vincent Giardino assisted with the fight choreography we praised so highly in our review of Yellowman .
And a brief note to those who still haven't caught From the Inside Out, the award-winning initial offering by The Women's Prison Repertory Company : The group gives its final performance of the show this Friday night, March 18, at 8 p.m. at the Barn at Fearrington Village. As always with this company of inmates, voluntary donations are accepted in lieu of tickets. Up next for the group: a new work entitled The Woman Next to You, which premieres this fall.
Got your question ready for Edward Albee yet? He's visiting the region next week. For more info, see our profile on this week's Best Bets page. That's also the place for our preview of the rescheduled National Troupe of Nigeria, who bring Olu Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blame to Durham this weekend.
Love dance? Prepare to step up the pace, then. Choreo Collective presents its sixth annual Current Collection this weekend, as covered in detail on our 8 Days a Week page. Carolina Ballet closes its reprise of Coppelia this weekend in Raleigh as Durham's Collage Dance Company celebrates its 20th anniversary with a concert Saturday night and Sunday afternoon at the N.C. School of Science and Math. This reunion and repertory concert features former members and musicians returning in performances of dance from southern, western and central Africa, Caribbean and Brazilian dance, and jazz and modern dance.
And it's not too early to get tix for Nicholas Leichter's two-night gig at Duke's Reynolds Theater, Wednesday and Thursday, March 23 and 24. This volatile choreographer, who has proven traditionally too cool for the main stage at American Dance Festival, mixes funk, modern, hip-hop, jazz and street dance influences to examine colliding issues involving gender, race and cultural issues. Definitely worth seeing.
*****Yellowman, Playmakers Rep--Kathryn Hunter Williams and Sam Wellington evoke a vivid community of characters in only the third show ever to receive our highest, 5-star rating. Dael Orlandersmith's lyrical, controversial drama cross-examines the "color complex," the prejudices within the African-American community toward blacks of different color. A community that judges two Gullah children by their skin pigmentation makes growing up a gauntlet in a coastal South Carolina town in the 1960s. Young Alma's disgust at her mother's powerlessness is poetic, cruel and completely understandable. Her prayers to be made lighter (to earn a father's love) mark one of the most wrenching scenes I've ever seen--a tribute to Williams and director Trezana Beverley. Meanwhile, Wellington manifests an inhuman prejudice unleashed by liquor appropriately--in snarls, barks and roars. As we hold our breath, two children struggle mightily to maintain their balance, humanity and love as they come of age while walking the razor's edge of difference.
Simply put, this is the undiluted essence of Drama. See it while you can. (Through March 20.)
****The Man Who , Manbites Dog Theater--No narrator holds our hand in this daring adaptation of Oliver Sacks' famous book of brain dysfunctions. Instead, clinicians simply interact with patients, without preamble or comment; when they end, we move on. The only conclusions come from the audience: a gutsy move when most issue plays show us social failings and then dictate what we all should think.
Mark Jeffrey Miller gets a real workout here; his characters include a man unmoored from language who protests when a doctor violates his sense of self. Dana Marks returns in triumph; her woman with Tourette's syndrome is an achievement. Newcomer Gigi DeLizza impresses as well.
Sacks' patients struggle for some sense of dignity and normalcy despite their difficulties. Meanwhile, the disregard with which their doctors routinely threaten that dignity is striking. After decades in an institution, what possible therapeutic benefit comes when, each day, an orderly suddenly shatters a woman's belief that she's still 22 by confronting her with her aged reflection in a mirror? In this latter-day freak show, the real freaks are the ones with the humane disorders. Most often they're wearing white coats. (Through March 19.)
**The Nerd , Temple Theatre--This week, on Casts We Love and the Shows We Hate Them In: Truth in advertising bids me warn you that the totally repellant title character in this unfortunate comedy has a number of far more appropriate titles: The Grating Psychopath, The Budding Pedophile and The Flaming Royal Ass come immediately to mind. This tedious exercise traps the characters--and the audience--in the same room with a total drip for two long hours, in a dubious contribution to that comedic sub-genre, "nice guy inexplicably permits visiting jerk to completely ruin his life." By the time we've sussed out what's what in a plot twist that comes two hours too late, we wish we'd seen a cast this talented put to better use. (Through March 27.)
*1/2 A Little Bit of Destiny , Odyssey Stage--Since many community-based theaters do fine work, last year's managerial change raised the possibility of improvement at Odyssey Stage. Unfortunately, this attempt at producing a neophyte local playwright demonstrates that while Odyssey's heart is clearly in the right place, its artistic standards still just as clearly aren't.
Immediately we're immersed in a drawn-out inheritance catfight in this small-town domestic drama after a stepmother has left everything to the youngest of four daughters. But the shrill, substandard acting--and the endless, artless bickering of two interchangeably evil older sisters--has us looking for the exits before the end of the first scene.
To grow, a novice playwright needs developers who aren't novices themselves. Fledgling actors clearly need good teachers and directors if ever they are to become something more than fledglings. While we've seen these traits in the best of the region's community-based theaters, they're still not visible at Odyssey. An unexpected plot twist in act two gave a glimmer of hope, transcending the prodigal-girl-heads-South storyline, while a glimpse of backbone animated the possibility of change in one or two characters. Still, when the playwright dyes the older sisters so indelibly green in the first act, we don't begin to buy their 11th-hour change of heart, particularly when the financial stakes are so radically raised. (Through March 19.)
Byron Woods can be reached at email@example.com.