BWW REVIEWS: POWER TO THE PEOPLE AS THREE NEW PLAYS MAKE BOSTON PREMIERES
Whether it's the disconnect caused by the pressures of today's world and economy or the challenge of maintaining meaningful relationships in the 24/7 digital age, three Boston theater companies are simultaneously featuring plays about disenfranchised people desperately seeking human connection.
In SPLENDOR, a world premiere by local playwright Kirsten Greenidge (The Luck of the Irish), a single mom returns home to find her identity amidst the tangled roots of her community's past. The Pulitzer Prize-winning WATER BY THE SPOONFUL by Quiara Alegria Hudes (In the Heights) examines the ways in which recovering drug addicts gain strength from, but also hide behind, their anonymity in online chat rooms. In Stephen Belber's THE POWER OF DUFF, a lonely newsman seeks redemption by inadvertently turning his anchor desk into a pulpit, working miracles for strangers while still failing to communicate at home.
Although all three plays raise interesting questions about connecting within a community, none of them wholly succeeds in connecting with the audience. SPLENDOR comes closest, even though THE POWER OF DUFF is the most focused. WATER BY THE SPOONFUL, alas, never really clicks.
Written by Kirsten Greenidge; directed by Shawn LaCount; dramaturgy, Ilana M. Brownstein; set design, Cristina Todesco; sound design, Arshan Gailus; lighting design, Jen Rock; costume design, Katherine Stebbins; properties design, Lisa Guild; production stage manager, Erin Basile
Fran Giosa (8-35), Alexandria King; Gloria Giosa (9-56), Becca Lewis; Anthony Giosa (18-36), Danny Mourino; Clive Cooper (19-56), James Milord; Aline Phillips (23-42), Obehi Janice; Nicole Gazza Mahoney (8-35), Molly Kimmerling; Mike Mahoney (16-35), Michael Knowlton; Colleen Madden Colby (35), Hannah Cranton; Lisa Murphy Vitello (16-35), Nicole Prefontaine; Dave Murphy (9-56), Greg Maraio
Performances and Tickets:
Now through November 16, Company One Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, Plaza Theatre, 539 Tremont Street, Boston; tickets are $20-$38 ($15 for students with ID, $10 student rush) and are available by calling 617-933-8600 or online at www.BostonTheatreScene.com.
Kirsten Greenidge's new play SPLENDOR is an ambitious attempt to span 47 years in the intersecting lives of four working-class families from Bellington, Massachusetts, a fictional coastal community just north of Boston. Set during the emotionally charged holidays on Thanksgiving Eve and Thanksgiving Day, the play crisscrosses back and forth in time, revealing deeper and deeper layers of family discord and buried guilt that have weighed down 10 individuals in particular and the entire community for generations.
At the center is Fran Giosa (Alexandria King), a newly divorced single mother who escaped Bellington years ago by going to college, losing her accent, marrying well and embracing the African-American side of her heritage. Now back in town to take care of her ailing Nana Giosa, Fran once again comes up against the racial blinders of her own single mother Gloria Giosa (Becca Lewis), a white Italian-American high school drop-out who insists that she and Fran are "just alike." Fran also fears the town's memories of an ill-fated Thanksgiving Day football game that defined her position as an outcast throughout her high school career.
The holidays also conjure the haunting memories of young Davey Murphy (Greg Maraio), a beloved friend, brother and son whose death is often alluded to but never fully discussed. As scenes from the past unfold and more and more puzzle pieces fit into place, we realize that it was the circumstances of Davey's death and not Fran's errant politicking that sent the team and community into a tailspin her senior year. No matter. For in SPLENDOR, as in life, one major tragedy, or one seemingly insignificant choice can alter history forever. For the people of Bellington, the ripple effect has been staggering.
For Anthony (Danny Mourino), Fran's serially unemployed actor-wannabe brother, no football scholarship meant no college and a life of dead-end jobs and sofa surfing. For teammate Michael Mahoney (Michael Knowlton), becoming a manager at Foodmaster became his fate. Lingering depression, anger, and unfulfilled marriages define the worlds of Davey's father Dave Murphy (also Greg Maraio), sister Lisa Murphy-Vitello (Nicole Prefontaine), and girlfriend Colleen Madden-Colby (Hannah Cranton). Unassuming peace keeper seems to be the adult role for Fran's schoolgirl friend Nicole Gazza-Mahoney (Molly Kimmerling), estranged but still connected by years of genuine fondness.
Fran's mother Gloria, meanwhile, is a paradox of working-class pragmatism and fairy princess dreamer. A hard-drinking, chain-smoking tough girl who was always able to provide for her family despite layoffs and the community's derision, she nonetheless still imagines herself the belle of the ball and aches for the better life that her intelligence could have brought her had she not been so compelled to seek the love she never got from her parents in the arms of the charming black activist Clive Cooper (James Milord).
Performances across the board are sterling, making Greenidge's acutely tuned ear for dialog and ample gift for character development apparent. Becca Lewis, Molly Kimmerling and Nicole Prefontaine in particular capture the frustrations, hopes and hearts of women imprisoned but not defeated by circumstance. All seem right at home in hardscrabble Bellington, wearing the Boston accent and rough-edged humor as comfortably as a Red Sox ball cap.
Director Shawn LaCount and the design team, too, add dimension and clarity to the many complex and episodic scenes in the play. They turn Greenidge's lighthouse motif into another character, bathing the four-sided stage and the surrounding audience with rotating beacons, clanging buoys, pounding surf, and ocean fog. Along tiered platforms that suggest coastal cliffs LaCount has shadowy figures emerge, ghosts materializing as if from the mists of the characters' insistent memories, haunting but also perhaps guiding the townsfolk away from the rocky shoals of the past and into the clear channel of the future. It's a compelling image that evokes spiritual connection and longing.
Somewhere amidst the dense and convoluted time travel of SPLENDOR, Greenidge has laid the groundwork for a very interesting play. The issue of Fran and her brother Anthony's being raised white when they are obviously black is fascinating and needs further development. Set that against the backdrop of the racial and working-class tensions in Boston before, during, and after the Civil Rights movement, and you have the potential for explosive and illuminating theater. The notion of returning home to exorcise identity demons is also powerful, especially when one's own perception and memory of events doesn't square up neatly with reality.
Unfortunately, Greenidge keeps derailing her play's dramatic potential with too many confusing flashbacks and peripheral storylines. As a result, the detailed genealogical chart printed as a two-page spread in the program isn't just a fun add-on. It's an essential scorecard for connecting the dots between families and generations.
Greenidge (and Company One dramaturg Ilana M. Brownstein) could use a lighthouse of their own to navigate their way through this dense but promising script. Perhaps if they pruned a few more limbs off the Bellington family trees, they might just achieve the SPLENDOR they seek.
PHOTOS COURTESY OF COMPANY ONE THEATRE: Danny Mourino as Anthony Giosa and Alexandria King as Fran Giosa; Alexandria King; Nicole Prefontaine as Lisa Murphy Vitello and Greg Maraio as Davey Murphy; Alexandria King and Becca Lewis as Gloria Giosa; Alexandria King and Molly Kimmerling as Nicole Gazza Mahoney; James Milord as Clive Cooper and Greg Maraio as Dave Murphy
(Coming Next: Reviews of Water by the Spoonful and The Power of Duff)