KPBS AIRDATE: MARCH 4, 1998
Onstage, it’s a great week for women. And a surreally good time for fantasy to butt heads with reality.
Nowhere is this more eerily evident than in “Ready for the River,” a hauntingly dark and dreamy, Mother-daughter Thelma-and-Louise tale of women on the run. In Neal Bell’s searing script, an abusive, murderous father has gone berserk after he’s lost everything he ever had. First he shoots the banker who’s foreclosing his farm; then he turns the gun on his women-folk, who run for their lives. It’s the mid-eighties, and Bell brings to agonizing life how Middle America had its American Dream turned “inside out and worn like a glove.” It’s another dysfunctional family, another story of deep despair, laced with a coldly bitter humor. Just the kind of show the Fritz Theater takes a shine to. And the kind of play director Christina Courtenay polishes to a high gloss.
She’s teased another mesmerizing production out of a cracker-jack cast, leading them into the innermost recesses of the characters’ desperation. Bryan Bevell, in three different roles, playing dead men and apparitions, does some of his most controlled and focused work. Greg Stevens’ set and Jim Johnston’s sound design are stark and evocative, as are the mournful harmonica interludes of James Tarbert. The blackouts are sluggish, but the scenes run like the river. Ultimately, the production belongs to DeAnna Driscoll and Melani Mennella, who bring a quiet despair, a hopeless hoping, a credible, deep-seated discord to this heart-breakingly co-dependent mother and child. Two beautifully nuanced performances in an aching, gritty play about staying put, moving on, hatred, anger, fear and love.
In a totally different time and place, two real-life, larger-than-life women co-existed but never met: the dueling divas of the turn of the century, Sarah Bernhardt and Eleonora Duse. The witty and intelligent playwright/actor Lillian Garrett-Groag has invented a meeting between the prima donnas of their day in “The Ladies of the Camellias.”
The idea is terrific, but both the play and the SDSU production have problems. Neither is sure whether this is historical fiction, flat-out fantasy, slapstick comedy, political thriller or self-congratulatory treatise on theater. Director Michael Harvey has encouraged his cast in all these directions at once, and the result is a hodge-podge that is, by turns, funny, serious, contemplative and downright silly. The need for French, Italian and Russian accents only compounds the challenge, and at times, unintentionally heightens the humor. But there are some commendable performances, especially the comic antics of the two leading men, Creighton Morrison and Gabriel Jones. And the divine divas themselves, played with skill and artistry — despite incredibly repetitive and mannered mannerisms — by Terri Park and Liv Kellgren. Both are young women to watch.
And something else worth watching this weekend: an “exploration of the monologue,” called “One Voice, Three Generations.” Moderated by Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee, the evening features confessions from an eleven year-old girl, a middle-aged wife and a 71-year old Latino senior. The Playwrights Project highlights the products of its Young Playwrights and Lifestages programs, as well as Mr. Albee’s “Seascapes.”
This week, it’s theater through the looking glass: women reflecting on themselves and each other.
I’m Pat Launer, KPBS radio.
©1998 Patté Productions Inc.