28 May 2017

Steel Magnolias, by Robert Harling

Following a group of women headquartered in a beauty salon in Louisiana, Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias has much in common with the stereotypical Lifetime movie. But that being said, it’s really quite excellent, and MT Pockets put on an outstanding production, directed by Seret Cole, with amazing performances by all of the cast members.

The key, heavy relationship of the story is between M’Lynn and her diabetic daughter Shelby. Although Shelby’s health is compromised she decides to have a baby with her new husband, despite her mother’s and doctor’s concerns that it will negatively impact her body. After the baby is born (three months premature) Shelby’s kidneys shut down and, following a period of dialysis, they determine that M’Lynn is a match for a kidney transplant. But the transplant fails, and Shelby slips into a coma and dies. Now, the medical drama happens off stage, but it colors much of the onstage action.

However, the play is punctuated by this heavy storyline—which is especially prominent in the last scene—but overall Steel Magnolias is a comedy. Most of the action that takes place in the beauty salon involves Southern sass, relationship cynicism, and mutual support. The beauty salon owner, Truvy, is the functional center of the clique, grounding some of the more outrageous personalities and moderating her employee Annelle’s increasing religious fervor. The other occupants of the parlor are Clairee, the football loving ex-mayor’s widow who buys the local radio station, and Ouiser, a curmudgeon with a mangy dog who spends most of the play grumping at Shelby’s father for shooting birds out of her magnolia tree (though the courts haven’t settled who owns the tree).

In most performances I’ve seen, there has been at least one weak link, one cast member who wasn’t as strong as the others. But in MT Pockets’ Steel Magnolias, everyone was fantastic. If I say that Cynthia Ulrich (M’Lynn) was probably the closest the show got to a standout performer, it’s because M’Lynn has the heaviest emotional role toward the end of the show. It is not to suggest that any of the other performers fell short in any way. M’Lynn is a dynamic and challenging character: in the opening scene she is the dignified yet miffed mother of the bride whose advice is continually being ignored, then she shifts immediately to the concerned mother when Shelby’s (Erinn Exline Casazza) blood sugar suddenly drops. But M’Lynn’s biggest scene is the last scene of the play, when her daughter has died and she is torn up by rage, confusion, and sadness. These are complicated emotions to play convincingly, but Ulrich hit it out of the park. Her performance took me there, to that grief, that outrage, and that guilt over both failing to protect her daughter and outliving her child.

But again, the show is fundamentally a comedy, and the MT Pockets’ production brought together some amazingly funny actors. Generally speaking, Truvy (Gretchen Ross) and Annelle (Kate Vacca) were complimentary, while Clairee (Kaici Lore) and Ouiser (Christine Adducchio) complimented one another. The first relationship developed in the play is between Truvy and Annelle, and Ross’ gregarious, convivial, and sassy performance was an excellent counterpoint to Vacca’s shy, skittish, almost mousy uncertainty. While Ross has the lion’s share of the funny lines in the early portion, Vacca’s sincerity and desire to please fit her immediately into the tightly knit group of women. Clairee and Ouiser both use cynicism to create a tough outer shell, which does little to hide their deep devotion to their friends. Lore’s straight and understated delivery made Clairee’s sarcasm devastating. And Adducchio’s flustered curmudgeon was a frequent target for the wit of her companions, but she got her own back when, for instance, she sicced her dog on Shelby’s bothersome father. One of the funniest moments in the play was between Lore and Adducchio, used to lighten the mood after M’Lynn’s brutally heavy outburst in the last scene. After Ulrich declared that she just wanted to hit someone until they hurt as much as she did, Lore grabbed Adducchio and held her for Ulrich to punch, yelling that this was her chance, they could sell t shirts, and that the whole town would love the opportunity to hit Ouiser.

My one small critique of the performance is that the scene changes were long, which was necessary because—unlike many shows where the actors signal the shift of time by changing minor portions of outfits—each scene involved a full costume change for each actor, so that they never appeared on stage in the same costume twice.

07 May 2017

Kimberly Akimbo, by David Lindsay-Abaire

A well-written comedy well performed makes for a delightful evening. And MT Pockets’ production of David Lindsay-Abaire’s Kimberly Akimbo was a delightful evening. Under Christian Cox’s direction, the cast put on a very strong performance, working cohesively together to create a fantastic production of a very funny play.

I’ve seen one of Lindsay-Abaire’s other plays—Rabbit Hole—and he certainly doesn’t disappoint here. Kimberly Akimbo follows Kim Lavaco, who has a disease which makes her age four and a half times the normal rate. The average life expectancy for someone with this disease is 16 years old. And Kim has just turned 16. And while this doesn’t sound like a comic set up, when you throw the rest of Kim’s dysfunctional family into the mix, it really gets farcical. Her dad, Buddy, is a (semi-)recovering alcoholic; her mom, Pattie, is heavily pregnant and seems to have given herself hypochondria as a way to cope with Kim’s likely early death; Aunt Debra is a grafter, drifter, and criminal who steals a mailbox as part of a scheme to wash checks and get Kim and her friend Jeff to cash them posing as a boy and his grandma; and finally Jeff, who is new to Kim’s life and the ultra-nerd tries to navigate the waters of Kim and her odd, secretive family. While none of these elements may in themselves be funny, when it’s put all together Lindsay-Abaire has struck a great balance between the farcical and the absurd, with just the right number of serious moments blended in.

Of course, a comedy with this many moving parts presents a major challenge in performance because every character is funny, so it’s imperative to have a strong cast to support all of those funny roles. And Cox cast a fantastic group for this show. Charlotte Haas played Kim with the biting wit and sarcasm of a surly teenager; Andrew T. Blood played Buddy, alternating between bursts of anger and a sense of helplessness; Tawnya Drake’s very New Jersey Pattie was fantastic as she complained, berated her family, and recorded audio tapes for her unborn child documenting her life and views; Lauren Swann gave a gruff and comically intrusive Aunt Debra; and Adam Messenger played a Steve Urkel kind of Jeff, relentlessly cheerful, continually shocked, and geekily enthusiastic about D&D and anagrams.

While all the actors were excellent, probably the standout performances came from Haas and Drake. While their performance styles were very different, they each brought their characters to live extremely well. Haas was generally understated, relying on sarcasm and a teenage surliness which is key to the role—a role which derives much of its punch in the contrast of the teenage girl against the older woman’s body, reminding us to be cautious about judging from appearances. Haas did a fantastic job playing the teen, even her body language conveyed teenage boredom, angst, and disillusion. For instance, when Kim confronts her parents about her unborn sister’s genetic code, Haas leaned against the wall with her arms folded to convey a teenage isolation and weaponized disinterest. On the other hand, Drake went big with her performance of Pattie—and big comic performances is where Drake really shines. Her Pattie was loud, was a talker, and shifted rapidly between anger at her unreliable, alcoholic husband, loving coos into the tape recorded for her future child, and extensive complaining about her multitude of (partially imaginary) illnesses.

The program still includes a note that the company is adjusting to the new LED lights—and the lighting was a point of critique in my last MT Pockets review. While there is still some room for improvement, the lighting this time was substantially better. The LEDs seem most adept at creating atmospheric lighting (that is, lighting the stage as a whole rather than highlighting bits and pieces like a spot light, or in changing dynamically) which is really what a play like Kimberly Akimbo seems to call for. It is a show that benefits from unobtrusive lighting, particularly when the acting and the storyline mesh as well as this production.