Pat Launer, Center Stage on KSDS JAZZ88
October 18, 2013
Two penetrating portraits – one fictional, one historical. Dramatically, the fictional works better than the factual.
For years, actor/singer/writer Daniel Beaty has been thinking about the powerhouse that was Paul Robeson, world-renowned scholar, singer, actor and activist. Now, in a collaboration between the La Jolla Playhouse and Kansas City Repertory Theatre, Beaty brings his creation to life in the world premiere of “The Tallest Tree in the Forest,” a moniker bestowed on the larger-than-life Robeson. As Beaty inhabits some two dozen characters and sings a dozen songs, his play chronicles the travels, speeches, signature melodies and political complexities of Robeson’s five-decade career. We get a strong sense of the outsized public persona, but very little of the private man.
There are a few times we do – in an early childhood interaction with his big brother, who was banished by their father; and in conversations with his doggedly faithful wife – and those are the strongest scenes in the show. Though deftly directed by Moisés Kaufman, overall, the production engages the intellect more than the emotions. We crave those intimate, behind-the-scenes moments. All the rest is public record. Whatever happened to the wayward, bellicose brother? And how was their father, a former slave, able to teach his sons “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” in the original Greek? We never find out.
Robeson was as much an activist as an artist, and we certainly need to witness his unflagging support of civil and human rights – and the Soviet Union. We should see his tussle with the Red-baiting McCarthyites in the 1950s, his blacklisting and his prolonged hounding by J. Edgar Hoover. We need to see his brilliance and talent, as well as the stubbornness and inflexibility that helped to end his career. Yet there’s much more to the man.
Beaty is a commanding performer, but his actor-showcase of a show puts his performance center-stage, often at the expense of the colossal character he’s portraying.
In Margaret Edson’s Pulitzer Prize winner, “Wit,” we are privy to the private hell more than the public face of Vivian Bearing, a fictional professor of 17th century poetry. We get only brief glimpses of her stellar academic past, when she was in total control – of her students, and of the metaphysical poetry of John Donne. But now, she’s in the hospital with stage 4 metastatic ovarian cancer, and her life is pretty much out of her control. Wit and verse can’t offer much help.
Her gut-wrenching journey is magnificently conveyed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth at Lamb’s Players Theatre. Smyth has excellent support from Jason Heil, Sylvia M’Lafi Thompson and others. But this is her story and her show. And, under the direction of Robert Smyth, with wonderful sound and music by Jon Lorenz, it’s one achingly powerful performance.
They say suffering makes you strong. It can also weaken the body, if not the spirit.
“The Tallest Tree In The Forest” runs through November 3, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
“Wit” continues through November 17, at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.
©2013 PAT LAUNER