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Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind

Plus My Lovely Suicides; The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer

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Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind
The ArtsCenter, Carrboro
Through Nov. 18

Most of us don't know Elvis, the man, or more importantly, Elvis, the child. Knowing the King as more than the rock 'n' roll star—reaching deep into the past to discover his roots—opens the door to many aspects of Southern culture that helped form the man and his music. This focus on the gender, race and class structures that define us and confine us is primarily what drives local playwright Paul Newell's new play Tupelo: To Elvis and the Town He Left Behind.

Each of Newell's characters, a group of small-town entrepreneurs who want to restore Elvis' Mississippi hometown and create a tourist attraction on a par with Graceland, reveals some aspect of Southern culture in their attitudes and performance. Race and class issues are still with us in the South (and elsewhere), and, as Newell's play implies, we carry the history of a place with us to such an extent that the land often becomes a character in our lives. In conveying the importance of place and its indelible imprint on a person—or on his or her music—Newell and director Paul Ferguson find some success.

Ultimately, however, the play struggles with its representations of the past and present. Newell implies that the race and class pathologies of Tupelo are responsible for molding Elvis' music, but what he fails to resolve is the fact that the same social reality that created great art in the form of Elvis Aaron Presley appears to have no upside today. Perhaps Newell means to offer neither praise nor contempt, but rather a deep, cultural analysis of the power of place and the importance of memory. But it takes some digging to get there. —Kathy Justice


My Lovely Suicides
Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern
Manbites Dog Theater
Through Nov. 17

Throughout My Lovely Suicides you can all but hear playwright Jody McAuliffe, director Dana Marks and actors Jay O'Berski, Flynt Burton, Gregor McElvogue and Tom Marriott impatiently asking Heinrich von Kleist, a German Romantic writer, why he had to be such a proto-Goth and drama queen.

Marks' direction continues the disjunctive, seemingly anarchic approach Little Green Pig has found useful in previous takes on Chekhov and others. But does the final result here, of the script as well as the production, constitute a life too reduced to something of a killing joke? Using so much humor to strategically distance us from the darkness in Kleist's life ultimately seems a miscalculation and an unintended disservice. Just how useful is the observation that Kleist was just too emo to live? —Byron Woods


The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Burning Coal Theatre
Kennedy Theater
Through Nov. 18

The interrogator in Carson Kreitzer's play reaches back to the beginnings of Jewish mythology. Her name is Lilith, and here she is a constant inquisitor and, at times, the only sympathetic companion to the scientist called the father of the atomic bomb. Still, considerable tensions are at play in her role as very special prosecutor. At one point, this relentless first woman (Debra Gillingham), sickened by "living on the smoke" of the Holocaust, admits, "I thought, this one will be interesting.... He will take the rage of the Jews and make it explode." Later, she turns on Oppenheimer's project with nihilistic laughter. Her sardonic response to Hiroshima: "I watched it burn, and I said 'Do it again, make another one, bigger, do it again.'"

The focus in Gillingham's work is never less than taut, and director Emily Tilson Ranii is self-assured in her staging of this poetic, speculative biography. —Byron Woods

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