BWW Reviews: Austin Playhouse's ROARING is a Resounding Success
Our society sometimes acts as if being old is something that we shouldn't think about, something to be hidden away. So often we see plays and films about people in the so-called prime of their lives, achieving their goals just in time for the curtain to fall and for the audience to leave the characters frozen in that moment of youthful success. Austin Playhouse's production of Roaring, by local playwright Cyndi Williams, casually disregards the need for youthful stars and by doing so achieves a refreshing victory.
Roaring treats the audience to a range of emotions and Lara Toner deserves credit for her smart staging and direction of a show that is sure to entertain and challenge viewers. Set in an underground nursing home in the near future, Roaring begins with the ensemble preparing for Visitor Day and a television interview with Lil, a resident who is also the world's oldest woman. We are introduced to the cast, led by Smart Joan (Mary AgenCox), a two-time Nobel Prize winning physicist struggling with dementia, and Pretty Joan, (Babs George) a past-her-prime pin-up. Both women create interesting and endearing characters, each independent and unique. Babs George lets no moments go to waste and has a nice interplay of savvy and uncertainty, and she is truly a pleasure to watch. Her portrayal of Pretty Joan is well-defined and nuanced, particularly in her relationships with Smart Joan and Riley. As Smart Joan, Mary AgenCox seems a bit overshadowed at first but allows her character to grow as the play goes on, becoming the most complex and moving character with the final, cathartic line of the show. A cheery Huck Huckaby, who gets to showcase a broad range of emotion with his multifaceted character, plays the sole elderly man and object of desire in the show. Claire Grasso, Hildreth England, and Stephen Mercantel all pull double duty as individual characters and younger representations of the three central elderly characters. Grasso and England excel most in the flashbacks, creating haunting and neurotic ghosts of the past, while Mercantel is particularly charming as the television reporter Bobby. Molly Karrasch ensnares the audience as Lil, a ghostly flapper girl, with a creepiness that is cut with occasional bursts of joy and vulnerability.
At first glance the set exudes the qualities one might expect a care facility to have- it feels clinical and boring, complete with neutral colors and textures on the wall and furniture. That said, the technical and design components of this play take marvelous advantage of the plainness and create a trippy chaos with the titular roar that throws the world out of order. The lighting (designed by Don Day), the set (Mike and Lara Toner), and sound (Joel Mercado-See) come together and make a visceral change to the setting, which continues to change and warp as the play goes on. The once boring set combines with the lighting seems to shapeshift, and creates an atmosphere that is at times creepy, dreamlike, and warm. The projections (designed by Lowell Bartholomee) add a nice dimension to the play and serve as an important plot device.
The real triumph of this production, however, is the brilliant script by Cyndi Williams. What starts as a folksy story about people at an old folks home getting visitors really evolves into a thought-provoking story of mortality and being able to let go of the past and embrace the present. The script is smart but accessible and does the audience the service of making us think while laughing at the witty one-liners Williams has built in. The dialogue defines the piece perfectly with a balance of wit, smart and occasionally dark humor, and honesty that seeks to address fears that we hold as a society. In addition to the dialogue, the piece has a subtle politicism to it, and implicitly advocates for feminism and the elderly while not making these causes an overt part of the plot. The script isn't perfect, with a conspiracy subplot that gets forgotten, but the rest is so enrapturing that you don't really care- the moments that Williams has chosen to show us, particularly the last few in the show, provoke the audience to consider the things that matter, the things that give you strength and define who you are and who you have been.
ROARING plays the Austin Playhouse inside the Highland Mall at 6001 Airport Blvd, Austin 78752 now thru May 4th. Performances are Thursday - Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 5pm. Tickets are $28-$30. For tickets and information, please visit www.austinplayhouse.com