BWW Review: World Premiere of Kara Lee Corthron's LISTEN FOR THE LIGHT at Know Theatre Of Cincinnati
Listen for the Light, the world premier play that opened at Cincinnati's Know Theatre on Friday night and is directed by Tamara Winters, begins quite lucidly. Inside a stark and sturdy wooden cabin, a bright spot highlights a simple wooden stool with a skillfully carved, little wooden doll standing on it. Suddenly, Eli Bennet (Darnell Pierre Benjamin) forcefully enters. He is illuminated from behind with a blinding white light. He closes the door, tenderly inspects the doll, sits on the stool, and launches into an emotional speech filled with fragments of sentences and memories. The speech is a fascinating look into the history of Eli's character, but it does little to move the action of the play forward. It seems like a good idea that gets abandoned to make room for more ideas, and the lucidity is lost.
Kara Lee Corthron, playwright, novelist, and winner of multiple awards, has written a play that is teeming with too many ideas, but is also brimming with a ton of potential. Nearly poignant moments get weighed down in over-explanation. Whole scenes arise to introduce new conflicts that distract from a character's already intriguing through-line. After much character introduction and exposition in the first act, a compelling and realistic plot begins to emerge only to have the second act inexplicably introduce moments of divine intervention in the forms of light, smoke, and characters being moved physically and spiritually by God's invisible hand.
At the center of Listen for the Light is escaped slave Eli Bennet, who is saved (physically and spiritually) by the founder of Mormonism, Joseph Smith (Josh Katawick). Eli becomes a loyal adherent of Smith and his new religion and settles with Smith and his followers in the town of Nauvoo, Illinois. (Nauvoo was purchased by Smith and his Mormon followers in 1839 after skirmishes with the Missouri state government forced them to relocate.)
Smith rightly trusts his honest new disciple and has sent a seventeen-year-old girl, named Lula (Tess Talbot) to stay with Eli in his cabin. She is to spend her time praying to God for a sign that she should become Smith's 44th wife. The young and excitable girl fails miserably at her daily prayers as daydreams of adventures in far-off places distract her. Marriage and pregnancy are of no interest to her.
Eli struggles with prayer, too, and he turns to woodworking to help fill the void. This satisfies him until he meets a slave in the town's general store. When he can't convince the slave to make a run for freedom, he becomes consumed with making abolition a focal point of the Mormon religion. When he reads aloud a passionate missive, intended for Congress, Smith seems disinterested. He is preoccupied with a slight written against him in the local paper which spurred him into ordering an illegal action which gets out of hand.
Smith, seeing that Lula has no interest in being his wife, sends her back to her parents, where she is cruelly abused by her father. After being saved from freezing in the elements, by Eli, she suddenly has a revelation and decides to marry Smith in a hurried ceremony in Eli's cabin. But, by now, everything begins to unravel for the characters and for the message of the play. So many things need to be tied up at this point that there are seemingly three endings, which is too many, even if they are all good endings!
Listen for the Light is an epic trying to be a low-budget indy. I would actually love to see this play expanded into, perhaps, three full-length plays. One play for each of the main characters might be able to hold the breadth of Corthron's vision for them. Director, Tamara Winters, wisely cast three actors who drew out the most compelling aspects of each. Tess Talbot is a winsome Lula. Talbot has an understated humor that makes you instantly fond of the rowdy dreamer. Josh Katawick skillfully plays both sides of the complicated Joseph Smith. He shows strength while simultaneously portraying Smith's self-doubt, which makes a difficult figure sympathetic. Darnell Pierre Benjamin has many emotional hills to climb as Eli Bennet, and he does so with grace.
In Listen for the Light, God seems to speak to you when He wants, not when you ask, and you may not always be able to understand what He is saying. This is a fabulous basis for a plot, but not for a play's structure. But, Know Theatre does well to take the risk on a work that hopefully Kara Lee Corthoron will keep expanding.
Listen for the Light runs through May 13th at Know Theatre of Cincinnati, 1120 Jackson Cincinnati, OH 45202
For tickets go here!
Photo credit: Dan R. Winters Photography