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Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis

Hauntingly Beautiful

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis

Theatre Memphis' newest production (CICADA) which opened this past weekend and runs through April 16th explores the difference between a memory and a ghost and what it means to be haunted by both. Memories, like ghosts, are just manifestations (internal versus external) of the people in our lives (often family) who shaped, loved, and inspired us. Or they're recollections (real or imagined) of kinfolk who sometimes shamed, tormented, and frightened us. Perhaps they're both. There's an argument to be made (generally speaking) when people utter the phrase, "Family is forever," it's supposed to be a good thing, but what if it's not? What if your family offers nothing but a long lineage of misery and pain? What to do? Where to go?

Originally developed at Memphis' Voices of the South over a decade ago and then having had a successful run in Chicago in 2014, local playwright/actor/director/librettist, Jerre Dye not only has written, but also directs CICADA for a limited run now through April 16th in The Next Stage at Theatre Memphis. It's a theatrical experience that engages, engulfs, and enthralls. It's that rare production where the talent of the actors elevates the quality of the writing and/or vice versa. It's a symbiotic relationship where Memphis' acting royalty comes together to personify the transformative writings of an artist with endless talents. It's a marriage of magic.

Set mainly in a northeastern Mississippi home where a mother (Lily) lives with her adult son (Ace) and countless other relatives (almost all women) who are no longer still "physically alive," Lily's days are spent wallowing in alcohol, insomnia, and regret. Despite feeble attempts to stay connected to her almighty savior, she puts her true salvation in becoming even more enmeshed with her son and forgetting the past. Despite an earnest loyalty, Ace strives to hold on, but recognizes his mother drifting drink by drink beyond an earthly deliverance. Whether or not the relatives still living with this foreboding couple are figments of spirit or Lily's imagination is beside the point-they are there to stay and are constant reminders of loss and tragedy. In stark contrast, next door, lives a woman (LaNora) who has mastered the art of coping with death with aplomb. While she rants about her husband's passing (calling him a "quitter"), her memories/ghosts provoke feelings of love and appreciation and, unlike Lily, she devotes her focus to the world of the living through gardening. Their opposite tools for grieving provide essential lessons for us all.

Technically, Jack Netzel-Yates' set powerfully recreates a dank home built with tears and still drowning in sorrow. Every room, bed, table, and chair are painful relics of an inherited quagmire that Lily and Ace must slog through without relief. Traditional attic clutter suspends high above the setting as a nice metaphor for the past precariously hanging above ready to come crashing down without warning. Mandy Kay Heath's lighting design eerily sets a ghostly mood with scatterings of shadowy figures hidden behind sheets and windows mixed with bolts of lightning followed by complete darkness. It definitely sets the mood.

Good shows sometimes have great acting which allows weaker dialogue to flow more naturally, while others have great writing which can elevate the performance of even the weakest of actors. It's rare to find a show with great writing and acting. CICADA has both!

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Jo Lynne Palmer as Granny

Jo Lynne Palmer (a fixture in Memphis theatre for 60 years) is a welcomed site as Granny who still lingers the halls of the family's old house and has an unusual, if not humorous demise. Palmer's presence onstage has always brought an immediate authenticity to whatever role she plays. You can't take your eyes off her.

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Kim Justis as Momma

Kim Justis (another of Memphis' theatrical royalty) portrays Lily's overly religious and contemptuous mother, Momma. Although this Momma is "technically" no longer living, her words and behavior towards Lily will haunt her (and the viewer) forever. It's a devastating depiction.

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Luke Conner as Ace and Matthew Ward as Dad

In a "where did this guy come from?" performance, Matthew Ward as Dad offers a believably folksy, yet immature character. He's good-looking enough to be convincingly desirable AND irresponsible. Ward underplays it perfectly for a setting as intimate at the Little Theatre.

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Steve Swift as Preacher and Cecelia Wingate as Momma

As the next-door neighbors, LaNora and her deceased husband called Preacher, Cecelia Wingate and Steve Swift couldn't be any more believable as a lovable but bickering southern couple. Wingate's LaNora squawks and Swift's Preacher giggles in a way that underscores a companionship built for eternity. Never has a "pull my finger" bit been more heartbreakingly beautiful.

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Luke Conner as Ace

Luke Conner as the stay-at-home son, Ace, is incredibly persuasive as a son trying to pull his mother from the quicksand of regret without falling in too. It's a layered performance that never strays into overacting or insincerity. He's one to watch.

Review: CICADA at Theatre Memphis
Alice Berry as Lily

Finally, Alice Rainey Berry delivers a knockout performance as a mother, daughter, sister, and abandoned lover enduring overwhelming loss after overwhelming loss. Berry is so natural in the role that she makes it look deceptively easy to pull off (it's not). Despite her attempts to be a good mother, daughter, Christian, etc. it's never enough. She remains loyal to a fault-even loyal to a decrepit old house full of anguish. Although she thinks she's just living with the dead, she's dead too, but without the formal pronouncement. She pulls you in and never lets you go. It's a remarkable achievement.

Cicadas are the loudest insects in the world and are hard to see as they often hide in the folds of tree bark. Their high-pitched noise is ubiquitous, constant, and piercing. They usually "sing" their daily overtures to usher in the impending darkness of night. Similarly, Lily lives in a world of perpetual sounds and visions of doom that never leave her head. Her ghostly encounters are constant, torturous, and unforgiving, yet familiar. Living or dead, our families will never leave us completely. Their words and actions can stay with us longer than anyone might expect. The past can become the present in an instant and we find ourselves reliving the same moments repeatedly. Since its inception, CICADA doesn't appear to have been performed in many theatres across America. This is a quality piece that needs to be seen by as many people as possible. Although it's a play about the past, here's praying that it can quickly be discovered by other theatres in America and enjoy a long, healthy future.

https://theatrememphis.org/




From This Author - Kevin Shaw

Kevin grew up performing in the Birmingham, AL community theatre circuit since 1974. After moving to Los Angeles and appearing in a number of theatrical, TV and Film projects, he transitioned to directing/choreographing... (read more about this author)


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