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Archive for May, 2022

Jitney
by August Wilson
Directed by Ron Himes
The Black Rep
May 13, 2022

Kevin Brown, Phillip Dixon
Photo: The Black Rep

August Wilson is one of the great American playwrights of the 20th and early 21st Centuries.  His Pittsburgh Cycle (also called the “Century Cycle”) is a celebrated series of works, mostly centering on Pittsburgh’s Hill District, with each play set in a different decade of the 20th Century and focusing on the life experiences of various characters in this historically Black neighborhood. The Black Rep here in St. Louis has been duly lauded for its well-regarded productions of Wilson’s plays, with its latest production, Jitney, continuing this tradition of excellence.

Taking place in the 1970s, Jitney is named for its setting–a “Jitney” or unlicensed cab station, which were popular because the “official” cabs often refused to serve the neighborhood– in an area of the Hill District that’s being rapidly redeveloped. A variety of well-drawn characters inhabit the space–mostly drivers and occasional customers and relatives. It’s a time when a lot of change is in the air, and much of it is driven by outside interests that are more interested in making money than retaining the character of the neighborhood, or caring for its Black residents. Change is also in the air for the Jitney drivers, as the youngest driver, Darnell AKA “Youngblood” (Olajuwan Davis), hopes to buy a house to better provide for his girlfriend, Rena (Alex Jay), and their young son, Jesse. Youngblood is full of hopes and dreams, but these are threatened by a misunderstanding and the gossip of resident busybody Turnbo (Ron Himes), an older driver who seems to resent Youngblood because of his youth. The station’s owner, Becker (Kevin Brown) deals with a variety of changes and challenges, as his long-estranged son, Clarence AKA “Booster” (Phillip Dixon), has recently returned to town after having spent 20 years in prison, and Becker isn’t so sure he wants to renew their relationship. There are also the pressures of running the station in the midst of the uncertainty concerning its future, as well as the pressures of managing his crew of drivers and their personal issues and conflicts–including the clashes between Turnbo and Youngblood, as well as longtime driver Fielding’s (J. Samuel Davis) ongoing issues with drinking. Fellow driver Doub (Edward L. Hill) attempts to keep the peace between his squabbling coworkers but is frequently exasperated in the process, and numbers runner Shealy (Robert A. Mitchell) is a continued source of stress for Becker as he insists on running his operation from the payphone in the station, and also asks Becker to use his influence at the local mill to get a job for a young relative.

The ups and downs of life in this small area of the country serves as a picture of the times, as well as a study of Wilson’s well-realized characters and their relationships. One of Wilson’s great strengths as a playwright is his ability with authentic, idiosyncratic dialogue and well-drawn characters that present credible “every day” situations in this specific setting while also exploring broader themes of what was happening in the wider world at the time, especially in the lives of Black Americans. Wilson’s plays are vivid and specific, as well as being both timely and timeless, and Jitney  continues this trend. At the Black Rep, Wilson’s vision is fully realized through means of excellent casting and production values, as director Himes gets the tone and pacing just right, as usual. There’s also an impressive, detailed set by Harlan D. Penn that brings the Jitney station to life, as well as excellent costumes by Jamie Bullins that reflect the characters’ personalities and the time period especially well. Joseph W. Clapper’s lighting and Justin Schmitz’s sound design also work well to establish and maintain the period, tone, and mood of the play, with lighting effects especially used well to punctuate dramatic moments in the story. 

On top of its first-rate production values, the biggest strength of the Black Rep’s Jitney is its cast. All of the players here fit ideally into their roles, led by Brown as the older and world-weary Becker and Olajuwan Davis as the young, determined Youngblood. These two anchor a cast that has no weak links, with standouts being Himes as the belligerent busybody Turnbo, J. Samuel Davis as the amiable, frequently inebriated Fielding, and Hill as the increasingly exasperated Doub. There’s also a strong turn by Richard Harris in a smaller role as frequent Jitney customer Philmore. The chemistry between Olajuwan Davis’s Youngblood and Jay’s Rena is also excellent and credible. It’s a superb cast all around, bringing life to Wilson’s excellent script and keeping the energy going in the midst of the varied pace of the story. 

The Black Rep is a company with a reputation for excellence in all its productions, but I particularly look forward to their August Wilson productions because they are always especially strong. Jitney is worth the anticipation. It’s a vivid, sometimes humorous, sometimes intense look at life for its characters at a specific time and place in history, but although it takes place in the 1970s, it has a lot to say to contemporary audiences as well. It’s a must-see performance.

Cast of Jitney
Photo: The Black Rep

The Black Rep is presenting Jitney at Washington University’s Edison Theatre until May 29, 2022

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Anomalous Experience
by Joe Hanrahan
Directed by Morgan Maul-Smith
The Midnight Company
May 5, 2022

Payton Gillam, Joe Hanrahan
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

Joe Hanrahan’s Midnight Company is back, with an original show that’s not very long in terms of time, but is full of intensity and meaning in its own way nonetheless. Anomalous Experience is actor-playwright Hanrahan’s foray into the unexplained, covering the often controversial topic of alien abductions. It’s an intriguing piece with a strong cast, but what stands out especially are the surprisingly strong production elements that add much to the overall sense of eeriness and mystery.

The play is presented in the format of a lecture by psychologist and professor James Collins (Hanrahan), who has worked with a variety of clients over the years who have claimed to have been abducted by aliens. He introduces us to two such clients–Virginia (Payton Gillam), whose case is described as more “classic”, and Scott (Joseph Garner), whose tales are a little more unusual. It’s all very straightforward in terms of presentation, but the tension ramps up as the stories get going.

There isn’t much here in terms of subject matter that hasn’t been covered in science fiction or shows like Unsolved Mysteries back in the day, but the actors make their stories compelling. Hanrahan makes an effective facilitator as Collins, and both Gillam and Garner are credible in their portrayals of their experiences. What especially adds to the experience, though, is the stellar work by sound designer Ellie Schwetye and lighting designer Tony Anselmo, in elevating this production from a simple interview format to a more increasingly chilling experience. As the characters tell their stories, the lighting and especially the sound effects add a creepy, suspenseful tone that punctuates the storytelling with surprising effectiveness. The pacing and staging by director Morgan Maul-Smith also lends much to the overall tone of the production, and even though you may have heard similar stories on TV or in movies before, these characters and their stories are made all the more compelling by the strong acting and excellent technical production.

No matter what you think about the topic of alien abduction in the real world, the topic makes for an intriguing subject as presented here. Anomalous Experience may not being breaking any new ground in its portrayal of this topic, but it’s a story told especially well. It’s a simply staged production, but an impressive cast and especially impressive technical design elevates the material. It’s an engaging, occasionally chilling, and thought-provoking piece from The Midnight Company.

Joe Hanrahan, Joseph Garner
Photo by Joey Rumpell
The Midnight Company

The Midnight Company is presenting Anomalous Experience at the .ZACK Theatre until May 21, 2022

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The Lonesome West
by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Robert Ashton
West End Players Guild
April 28, 2022

Jason Meyers, Jeff Kargus
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild’s latest production is from celebrated Irish-English playwright Martin McDonagh, whose specialty is dark comedy with a penchant for the gruesome. The Lonesome West, however, even though it’s still essentially a dark comedy, is something of a departure in that it explores its relationships with not just a sharp edge, but also with a bit of a softer side and not a few moments of true poignancy. As staged at WEPG, it’s also an expertly paced showcase for four excellent local performers.

Set in Leenane, Galway, Ireland, the play follows two brothers, Valene (Jeff Kargus), and Coleman (Jason Meyers), who are constantly squabbling over multiple issues, big and small. We first meet them after the funeral of their father, who was shot by Coleman apparently by accident. Valene is extremely possessive, putting his initial on everything that belongs to him, from his new stove to bottles of booze to snack foods, and is reluctant to share with his brother. He also irritates Coleman by obsessing over his collection of figurines of various Catholic saints. Coleman, for his part, irritates his brother by constantly flouting his rules, and both brothers are a source of frustration for the local village priest, Father Welsh (Ted Drury), whose name they can’t even always get right, and who is frequently questioning his faith because of his perceived inability to have any effect whatsoever on the moral development of the townspeople. There’s also Girleen (Hannah Geisz), a neighborhood schoolgirl who hawks her father’s homemade booze and seems to look up to Father Welsh, despite the priest’s continued self-doubt. It’s these two characters who most often produce the occasional poignant moments that appear from time to time in the play, while the brothers are a chaotic force that drives the dark comedy ever darker. Even when there’s a new tragedy that makes the brothers take stock in their own lives and their relationship, they still can’t seem to help their constant needling of one another. 

Like McDonagh’s other plays that I have seen, the sense of setting is strong here, with a believably Irish tone and atmosphere that’s well maintained in this production by the excellent work of the actors and designers. The small, seemingly ancient farmhouse is well-realized in Brad Slavik’s remarkably detailed set, and the characters are appropriately outfitted by costumer Tracey Newcomb. There’s also strong work on props from Frank Goudsmit, as well as excellent atmospheric lighting by Tony Anselmo and skilled sound design by Jenn Ciavarella.

The actors are especially impressive here, with Meyers and Kargus play against one another particularly well as the belligerent brothers, Coleman and Valene. Their strong personalities are well-realized, as is their sharp sense of comic timing and physicality. There’s also superb work from Drury as the self-doubting Father Welsh, who provides much of the emotional heart of the play, and Geisz as the feisty Girleen is also strong, especially in her scenes with Drury. The pacing is strong, as well, and the whole cast brings a sense of energy to the production that adds much to its entertainment value, as well as it’s occasionally thought-provoking themes.

McDonagh’s plays are often crass, sometimes gory, and definitely not for all ages, but this one has a degree of emotional resonance that I haven’t seen in some of his other dark comedies. Dark, physical, and frequently irreverent comedy is still at the forefront here, but there’s a level of depth that makes this play especially intriguing. As performed by a first rate cast at WEPG, The Lonesome West is certainly worth checking out.

Ted Drury, Hannah Geisz
Photo by John Lamb
West End Players Guild

West End Players Guild is presenting The Lonesome West at Union Avenue Christian Church until May 8, 2022

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