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When one thinks of Eugene O’Neill, one thinks of wrenchingly serious plays, but “Ah, Wilderness” gives him a chance to explore the comparative innocence of a life he wished he could have lived. In the new production at A Noise Within, the play becomes a charming celebration of the nature of adolescence with characters recognizable over time and ethical distance in a way which makes the entire play approachable and embraceable.
In this warmhearted view of a middle class, small town family’s 4th of July in 1906, we follow 17-year-old idealist Richard Miller as he butts heads with his practical father, college-boy elder brother, overly nourishing mother, and the rest of his extended family. He yearns for the daughter of an overly straight-laced man, reads the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, espouses socialism, and generally disrupts the calm of his family circle. In the ANW production, this comparatively lighthearted tale has been laced with popular music of the period – a move which instantly reinforces both the setting and the lighthearted nature of the thing.
Nicholas Hormann sets up the feel of the entire piece as Nat Miller, the easygoing patriarch of Richard’s family and publisher of the town newspaper. That very casual but upright “man of the world” quality sets the tone for the family and the entire play. Deborah Strang fusses and nurtures as Richard’s warm, worrying mother. Against these settled people’s maturity flails Matt Gall as the passionate Richard, whose journey into rebellion (and then back into the fold) becomes the focal point of the play. Gall gives Richard both the aura of conviction and the simplicity of lovesick youth in a combination which works well to tie all the pieces of this tale together.
Ian Littleworth, as Richard’s Yale-going elder brother, reflects the pompousness of the newly independent young man, while Katie Hume and Samuel Genghis Christian provide Richard’s younger siblings – the very observant, somewhat sardonic younger sister and the even younger littlest brother. Indeed, there is an aura of youth and innocence throughout this family circle, which balanced by the subtle struggles of the house’s other two occupants.
As Nat’s “old maid” sister, Lily, Kitty Swink finds a combination of determination and pathos, especially in Lily’s relationship with her former love interest, the flawed Sid, whose battle with addiction – though kept lighthearted in Alan Blumenfeld’s rendition – still provides a haunting connection to the darker side of small town life. Among a sizable cast, Emily Goss gives a youthful bravado to Richard’s clandestine love interest, while Emily Kosloski has a lovely time with the “fallen woman” Richard encounters while in defiant despair.
Director Steven Robman has given these folks a timbre and a pacing which keeps the story light on its feet. Scenic Designer Frederica Nascimento utilizes very mobile set pieces to create the swift changes needed to keep that pacing on target. Most of Garry D. Lennon’s costumes evoke era and class with an easy grace. It all works together to make a delightfully intelligent and largely uplifting whole.
“Ah, Wilderness” is not a rollicking comedy, but rather will evoke the laughter of recognition, and a chance to see a rare side of O’Neill: a balance to his more usual, far more grim works. For those who have never seen it, the ANW production will be a treat. For those who have, this production will confirm why it is worth seeing again. If only coming of age always involved this much charm. “Ah, Wilderness” plays in repertory with ANW productions of Shakespeare’s “King Lear” and the soon-to-open musical “Man of La Mancha”.
What: “Ah, Wilderness” When: through May 20, 7 p.m. March 19, April 9, and May 14; 7:30 p.m. April 20; 8 p.m. April 15 and 21, May 19 and 20; 2 p.m. matinees March 19, April 9 and 15, May 14 and 20 Where: A Noise Within, 3352 E. Foothill Blvd. in Pasadena How Much: starting at $25 Info: (626) 356-3100, ext. 1 or http://www.anoisewithin.org
The fact that playwright Bernard Weinraub spent most of his life working at prestigious newspapers obviously informs his work in the theater. Indeed, although nominated for awards in its off-Broadway run, his first play, “Accomplices,” met with mixed emotions among critics. Ostensibly detailing the U.S. government’s thwarting of attempts to rescue Jews from Europe as World War II began, it was hailed by some, but was labeled by other critics as more of a lecture or an expose´ than a play. Now his second work, “Above the Fold” hits closer to his personal and long-time professional home. Yet, there is the same sense of mixed emotions.
Now at the Pasadena Playhouse, “Above the Fold” examines the modern ethics of journalism in a time of shrinking print venues. It speaks to the value of a good story, over a right or balanced one. Such discussions have happened before, in books, in films as far back as the 50s (an example would be “Ace in the Hole”), and in examinations of modern media. The message of journalism and journalists as tools of the powerful is a recurring theme in modern times as well, as anyone knows who ever watched “The West Wing,” much less anyone paying attention to politics these days.
That which may be new in this play is more a matter of style and acting skill than some shocking revelation, or some great message of doom or hope we have not yet heard.
The story appears loosely based on the case of those Duke University LaCrosse players in 2006 wrongly accused of attacking a local African-American girl. It centers on Jane, a young New York Times writer sent to cover the story of three white fraternity brothers accused of raping the stripper engaged to perform at a frat party. Jane, anxious to get the more choice overseas assignments, plows into the middle of the tale when she arrives to cover the candidacy of a young southern district attorney. He hands her exclusive information about this potentially explosive rape story, and she is quick to run with it.
Jane ends up with a series of front page articles which feed the stereotype: rich white boys filled with entitlement, young and struggling African-American single mother abused by them, righteous district attorney determined to defend the local community against the university outsiders, etc. That she is African-American herself may make her even more ready to believe it all. Certainly, she gains a great deal from the notoriety of the story, as it grows. But the closer she looks at the situation, the more she begins to wonder about that story itself. Soon, she is faced with tough personal and professional choices.
The characters, except perhaps Jane herself, prove comparatively predictable. Still, they are played with fervor and care. Mark Hildreth’s earnest district attorney, soft-spoken, charming, and apparently without guile, gives plausibility to the reporter’s eagerness. Kristopher Higgins, Joe Massingill, and particularly Seamus Mulcahy make the three young men both suspicious frat boys and sympathetic human beings at turns. Kristy Johnson does what she can to develop the boys’ victim, with her erratic attention shifts and aura of addiction, beyond the elements of either two-dimensionality or stereotype. Arye Gross hits all the right notes as he plays the classic newspaper editor, nurturing to young talent while responsible to the publisher upstairs.
Still, what makes this play worth watching, predictability, and stereotypical situations and characters notwithstanding, is Taraji P. Henson as Jane. Her ethical wrestlings prove very real, as does her outrage as the story she is telling slips out of her grasp and becomes larger than she can possibly control. Watching the character’s move from what she at least sees as detached professionalism to passionate care, to angry disillusion keeps the audience’s focus and brings a certain gravitas to what might otherwise be a Movie of the Week.
“Above the Fold” may not be a great play, but it has performances worth watching. Director Steven Robman keeps the intensity at a heightened level, and – in concert with Jeffery P. Eisenmann’s fascinating set pieces – intensely immediate. Costumer Dana Rebecca Woods provides instant definition for each character. It’s all done in grand style. Just don’t go expecting to learn something you did not know, and you’re fine.
What: “Above the Fold” When: Through February 23, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Sundays Where: Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave in Pasadena How Much: $38 – $72 Info: (626) 356-7529 or http://www.PasadenaPlayhouse.org