The inaugural production of Stillwater Theatre, Elan Garonzik's 1976 play Scenes and Revelations is something of a twice-told tale, since the company's principals, director Carnessa Ottelin, costumier James Cuthrell and artistic director Steven Roten, bonded over a 1999 production of the show at UNC-G. It's understandable: Garonzik's atmospheric text probes the late adolescences and early adult years of sisters Helena, Charlotte, Millie and Rebecca Longnecker, the surviving members of an upper middle class family in a rural Pennsylvanian town in the 1880s and '90s.
Despite the superficial plot similarities, this work is no Little Women. In Alcott's world the March sisters scrimp by, on imagination as much as anything else, before each ultimately embraces the broader world in her fashion.
By contrast, by the end of this darker work, we realize we may well be witnessing this family's slow implosion, as suspiciously convenient forces seem to thwart each sister's attempts to come into her own and enter adulthood, leaving them facing only each other.
This new company's new residency brings with it stronger performances to the Meredith College stage. Under Ottelin's direction, it's no stretch to imagine Kristin Killmer's face staring gravely at us from an old daguerrotype in the role of the brittle young Rebecca. Mary Floyd returns to the region rock solid as the prim, religious Charlotte, and Rachel Adams is quite notable here as eldest daughter Helena. John Honeycutt appears to channel Jack Lemmon as the irascible Karonk, and Ryan Brock displays adequate bandwidth as three of the four major men in the Longneckers' lives.
But, for all their labors, Garonzik's script noticeably shorts the stories of at least three of these four women, leaving far too many questions unanswered. We wonder how a family that owns a thriving farm in the Pennsylvania countryside could be so not of that place in so many fundamental ways, including their religion, education, aesthetics, ambition and social stature.
Though robust acting and direction covers many of the gaps in continuity and plot, the sisters seem ultimately to have been dropped onto the landscape where we find them, instead of coming from it. Perhaps that's why, when they leave it, it can seem so acceptable a loss.
Dramaturge Gillian Watson bravely lays her cards face up in the program notes: How does one present The Taming of the Shrew to a post-feminist audience? In this Burning Coal production we find director Jerome Davis' answer, which is nothing if not, um, shrewd: Simply make Petruchio, the immortal "tamer," as absurdly over-the-top a figure as the historically evil-tempered Kate. Thus a larger-than-life Nick Berg Barnes swaggers his way, in desert camo chic, through the shifting sands of Sonja Drum's set, surmounting all obstacles--including a fearsome Debra Gillingham in the title role--with the broadest Australian accent Actors' Equity could provide. Imagine a combination of Steve Irwin and Robin Leach on steroids. That ought to do the trick.
Though this bit of hyperbolic casting and direction appears to restore a bit of balance (and symmetry) to Shakespeare's text, when this Gojiro and Mothra are evenly paired and sequestered in their own battle royale, the rest of the world returns to the relatively problematic one we already know, if not love. That women, so apparently passive while men contend with one another through courtship, assert their will after marriage remains a Bad Thing in Shakespeare's endgame. Whatever situation Kate has truly negotiated for herself by play's end here likely remains almost as obscure as the one Davis espied on his first perusal of the play.
In itself, it's not the worst fate to befall a production of this text. Perhaps the triumph of this show is the degree to which we're left wondering what precisely has been resolved between the would-be tamer and his shrew--and what still lies ahead. We're presented here not so much with a fait accompli--the flaw in most productions--as much as an ambiguous circumstance that is clearly still unfolding.
Though mention is made of Zen Buddhism in the program notes, this production doesn't really begin to place the Shrew in an alien Japanese culture. The notes appear primarily to justify Drum's spare--but flawed--Zen garden of a set, and Maggie Clifton's colorful but anachronistic costumes.
No matter. The acting and thought at work elsewhere in this production fully commends itself to audiences--post-feminist and otherwise.
***1/2 Long Day's Journey into Night, Ghost & Spice Productions, Common Ground Theatre--Eugene O'Neill's posthumously published and most overtly autobiographical play probes the lacerating double binds of the family in which he grew up, at times in excruciating detail. It's hard to imagine a series of relationships more designed to keep all parties in perpetual checkmate than those between mother Mary, father James and brothers Edmund and Jamie Tyrone.
Under Rachel Klem's direction, Lenore Lee Field, John Murphy, newcomer Josh Long and Jeff Alguire locate the love, the pain--and above all, the unmerciful, unsparing critical eyes--that all members in this family possess. Ms. Field uses O'Neill's text as the basis for a rich recital in gradual disintegration. Though we questioned Alguire's Jamie at the start, his character's startling self-indictment in Act IV proved one of the high points of the play. The result of all labors: one family's tragedy, played out simultaneously over two generations, that unfolds with a slow and terrible grace, even though it's punctuated at points by generous laughter. (Closes Sept. 25.)
**The Story, Raleigh Little Theatre--Tabloid theater unintentionally mimics tabloid journalism when playwright Tracey Scott Wilson fields a cadre of straw characters to Illustrate a Problem--in a plot that criticizes a journalist for doing more or less the same thing. Clearly based on the 1980 "Jimmy's World" affair at the Washington Post, when a reporter was stripped of a Pulitzer Prize and fired for fictitious reporting, this rather self-righteous reply fares little better: Its one-dimensional characters haven't got a life off the page, either.
African-American editor Pat (an intense Jackie Marriott) is written only to indict the newsroom politics of racial uplift, burying all negative community news in an endless cavalcade of puff pieces. Oleaginous reporter Neil (George Hill) provides a black update of the "good old boy." And central character Yvonne (Chaunesti Lyon) has no internal integrity as a journalist or a dramatic character. Her motivations remain a mystery until a few closing lines "explain" her behavior--just before it's roundly condemned again. Ironically, Wilson ultimately proves neither theater nor journalism should be this reductive, exploitational or focused on lurid acts at the expense of understanding the human foibles that precipitate them. (Closes Sept. 25.)
E-mail Byron Woods at email@example.com.