BWW Reviews: Pittsburgh At Its Best And Worst in City Theatre's SOUTH SIDE STORIES
The Pittsburgh regional accent, and its attendant dialect Pittsburghese or "Yinzer talk," is hard to explain to outsiders. According to Wikipedia, this unique local way of speaking carries influences from almost all Ellis Island immigrant groups, as well as from the other major cities of industry in the eastern half of the country: Polish, Irish, German, Dutch, Italian, New York, Chicago and more all combined into one distinct tongue. Needless to say, hearing it for the first time can take some practice, much like one's first experience watching the BBC.
Tami Dixon's one-woman show, South Side Stories, feels at times like a love letter to Pittsburghese and the kinds of people who speak it. City Theatre's presentation, which is not-so-coincidentally performed in a black-box theatre on the corner of one of the streets in the South Side, clearly resonated with the audience, who chucked, nodded, shook their heads and sometimes murmured with recognition. Tied together with a loose frame story involving Dixon (as herself) confronting unfamiliar Pittsburgh language, her own mortality, and a spectral deer, the show otherwise traces the history of the South Side through a series of "character moments" in which Dixon becomes one of dozens of Pittsburgh characters. The form of these character moments varies: some, possibly influenced by Studs Terkel's Working and its theatrical adaptation, are almost interview-like sketches in which a Pittsburgher -such as the washed-up, drunken steelworker who opens the show- talks directly to the audience about who they are, what they do and how they feel about it; other moments, which prove to be the show's comedic highlights, involve Dixon performing multiple characters at once in dialogue with each other, changing her voice and physicality rapidly between them to differentiate. Though the monologues contain more heart and generated a more emotional response, the comedic scenes proved to be the biggest crowd-pleasers, eliciting belly laughs and applause, previously held for the end, from all three sides of the house. One need not be a Yinzer to appreciate scenes like a former juvenile delinquent musing on his Catholic school shenanigans, or a nervous newcomer confronted by a snippy 911 operator.
Comedy is only one side of South Side Stories, and the play's heart lies in the more dramatic monologues. If the play has anything resembling a central plotline, it is the gradual transition of the South Side from rough-and-tumble factory town to impoverished community to gentrified hangout for yuppies and hipsters. A great number of the characters Dixon portrays feel an animosity towards the new South Side and its new residents. They feel disenfranchised from the world of hip bars, art houses and expensive coffeehouses that have replaced their neighborhood restaurants, row houses and factories. One chain-smoking older man curses out the yuppies and longs for the days when fighting and brawn, not financial savvy or smarts, ruled the South Side. Another character, a Florida woman who moved to the area when her husband lost his job in their home state, worries that the nebby neighbors- "nebby" being a common Pittsburghese word for nosy and opinionated- are intentionally making her feel unwelcome. Above many of these stories looms the shadow of death, whether it comes by work-related exposure to toxic factory elements, or from cancer, alcohol or drugs used by these hard-living workers to self-medicate their job stresses away.
Only twice in the ninety-minute performance did the production seem to misstep- the very beginning, and the very end. An opening scene in which the character of Tami Dixon inadvertently discovers a dead body is staged rather broadly and eanestly, inadvertently calling to mind Maureen Johnson's performance piece "Over The Moon" in Rent. When the loose frame plot finally draws to a close, its last installment takes a mystical, magical-realist tone completely at odds with the earthiness and realism of the last hour and a half. Seeing Dixon the character commune with the spectral deer and suddenly channel the spirit of the dead South Side woman she has been so concerned about feels jarring after seeing Dixon the performer more traditionally "channel" the characters she embodies. This blurring of the line between performer and character, between acting and spiritualism, resembles the equally-befuddling final moments of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, where the narrator of a very different solo show suddenly stops playing characters and instead channels another person in a moment of mystic revelation.
Matt M. Morrow's direction of Tami Dixon's text is simple and elegant, letting her play her various characters on a series of raised platforms on Tony Ferrieri's set design. These platforms, with no props other than Dixon's own body, become bars, porches, lawns, yard sale tables and more. Sound designer Nathan Leigh provides not only sound effects but a sparse original score, mostly based around the folk tune "Pittsburgh Town," made famous by Woody Guthrie. Twice, the acoustic-guitar-based score moves into musical-number territory. The first, opening the show, is a semi-ironic rendition of "Pittsburgh Town" by Dixon as herself, a new resident alternately amused and cynical about the town's factory past and eclectic present. The second, which comes unexpectedly in the last third of the play, is too good to spoil here.
Will theatre fans outside Pittsburgh see the appeal in this quirky, location-specific piece? I believe so. No matter where you look, every large community has the part of town that went to seed, and just as likely has the part of town that underwent a metamorphosis to become the antithesis of what it once was. My companion at the opening, wh ocomes from a small town on the other side of the state, knew little about Pittsburgh culture- pierogies, steel mills, words like "jagoff" and "chip-chopped ham"- but from her laughter, nods and rapt attention I could tell the piece still connected with her. Maybe we're all Yinzers, even "damn yuppies" like me.
City Theatre's encore presentation of South Side Stories runs from January 8 to January 26 at the Hamburg Studio. For more information or ticket sales, visit www.citytheatrecompany.org.