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Review: MISS MAUDE Gains Potential at AD Players

Review: MISS MAUDE Gains Potential at AD Players

Production runs until October 23rd

You would think a story with its title character would be the main focus of a play. For example, Beetljuice the Musical's title character almost never leaves the stage and has a character arc, or in The Music Man, the literal Music Man, Harold Hill, remains the center of attention for most of its play. Unfortunately, Miss Maude at AD Players, a play that draws inspiration from a selfless black nurse from the 1950s, fails to provide its title character anything more than a plot point for its white male protagonist. This ultimately leads to a Pre-Broadway World Premiere that with some tweaking could see a fully successful commercial run in both New York and other theaters. While I did not personally enjoy some aspects of the story, Martin Casella has the beginnings of what could be a great play.


Set in the Jim Crow era of South Carolina, Miss Maude begins with the audience finding Life Magazine photographer and addict Eugene Smith down on his luck and taking on an assignment to visit midwives in America. Smith arrives in South Carolina and meets Maude Callen, the head midwife and nurse for a small town in the state. Throughout the play we see Smith deal with his addiction, relationship troubles, and mental health issues as he follows Miss Maude throughout her daily life. Throughout the play we also see the politics regarding segregation as both Smith and Miss Maude struggle with the racist culture of the deep south. Ultimately, Smith recovers from addiction, his mental health problems, and gains a creative muse as he interacts with Miss Maude and her difficulties. It is upon seeing her struggle that Smith realizes his luck in life and vows to help Miss Maude in building her own clinic. In a tired troupe of western theater, Smith's publishing of the photos in Life Magazine helps Maude realize her dream of having her own clinic, while perpetuating a "white saviour" notion for its title character.

I would like to note that my summary above mentions Miss Maude as a secondary character, even though she is represented in the title. This draws on the central problem of Miss Maude, the playwright, Martin Casella, seems to be trying to create a play that draws attention to the problems of race in both the past, and sadly, in our present. Unfortunately, this play doesn't do that, for it trivializes the problems of our past by creating white characters that are comedic or downright appalling. Yes, those people exist, and yes this is theater where exaggeration is the norm, however, it is hard watching most of his characters exist because instead of being realistic people, we as audience members are meant to laugh or feel creepy at their absurdity on the topic of race. For example, the governor sends a Dandy to inform Smith that his photographing Miss Maude is troubling because she is black and encourages him to photograph white families, schools, etc. Racism isn't funny, and nor should Casella be trivializing the dilemma. Another illustration is a nurse who reacts angrily to saving a black baby from death, and boy was that entire scene difficult to sit through. The scene revolves around Miss Maude taking an ailing baby to a whites-only hospital. Upon asking for treatment, the white nurse refuses to do a blood transfusion, but wait, white guy Smith is here to save the day because he just so happens to have the same blood type. The nurse then does the blood transufsion reluctantly and in a fit of spitefulness throws the blood on the floor and unfortunately the baby dies because of the nurse's racism. This scene was difficult to get through and it was impossible for myself to feel sympathetic for Smith as he struggles with the death. At my viewing, audience members laughed at the nurses callousness, and it was shocking they did. Maybe uncomfortable or nervous laughter but all the same, this scene felt more like a grandstanding scene study rather than a realistic portrait of Jim Crow era life.

This unfortunate concept leaves the plays black characters to be characterized by stereotypes. During the intermission of the show, a woman was explaining to her friends how Miss Maude personifies a "mammy" role, and Maude's husband as a minstrel man. Even the character of young teen and aspiring photographer, Joshua seems to be written for comic relief. Again, racism isn't a funny concept, and dealing with it shouldn't be played for laughs. When the ending comes around and Smith exclaims how Maude receives her clinic because of his photography, it is really off-putting. We can see Smith's life change because of Maude, but by the epilogue it is tiring to hear how much he is trying to help her. Mentally I was exclaiming "Dude we get it, you want to help her!" In the epilogue he exclaims that Maude gets her clinic thanks to her article, making sure the audience is aware by saying it one more time.

What I did like about the production is the performances of everyone in the cast. An ensemble show, with multiple storylines and parts, the actors do a spectacular job with this show. First, is the ensemble of Christy Watkins, Shannon Emerick, and David LaDuca, who have an incredibly difficult job of playing multiple characters. Emerick especially has one of the more difficult tracks in the production and provides an extra level of nuance in every character she personifies. I personally would love to see Emerick do more acting around Houston. Ciara Anderson and Brandon Morgan also do fantastic work. Morgan, like Emerick, does a lot of heavy lifting from an ensemble member, when playing Maude's husband, became an exceptionally bright spot. Having previously seen Morgan do excellent work elsewhere in the Houston theater scene, I can't wait to see more of his acting ability.

The three leads of the show are Rosalyn Coleman as Maude, Robert Eli as Eugene Smith, and Jeremiah Packer as Joshua/Sinclair and all three do an amazing job in their roles. Packer has some incredibly acting ability in being able to play a young teenager that provides both the comic relief and the ultimate heart of the show. If awards are to be given, Packer deserves a nomination in a Supporting Male Presenting category. Smith also does really well, as he acts as an audience proxy in to seeing Miss Maude. Yes, the lines he speaks can do with some improvement, but Smith does some brilliant work and deserves to move with the show at its next production. Finally, the effervescent, beautiful, and talented Rosalyn Coleman. Right out of the gate, Coleman comes on the stage with gusto and strength and portrays Miss Maude with so much respect and beauty it is hard to keep your eyes off of her. Much like Smith, Coleman needs to play Maude in whatever future productions are to come for it is her extraordinary acting ability that allows the play to succeed.

Design elements of the production are done well and serve their purpose. While simple, the production makes much use of projections. The projections of the production allow the audiences to feel some semblance of realism and it is thanks to John Narun that Houston audiences are able to experience them.

I hate to admonish a play that revolves around black characters and cultural issues such as racism. However, Casella can do better and should before this plays makes stops in other parts of the country. Maybe with the help of a dramaturg, literary manager, or potentially allowing Miss Maude to be the protagonist in her own play will allow the play to have a brighter future. The bones of a really good play are on stage and I can see it eventually being an incredibly riveting play about an important and "unknown" historical figure. For those reading this review, a quick wikipedia search of Maude Callen will allow you to truly discover the amazing work of Maude Callen and is a great place to start in learning about this phenomenal woman. Here is to long road ahead for Casella, whose Miss Maude play is currently good but I can't wait to see what he can do to make it exceptional.


Miss Maude by Martin Casella runs at AD Players George Theatre from Septermber 21st to October 23rd. Evening performances on Wednesday and Thursday at 7:30 PM, Friday and Saturday at 8 PM, with matinee performances on Saturday and Sunday at 2:30 PM. Tickets can be bought at AD Players on 5420 Westheimer Rd or at their website at adplayers.org.


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