BWW Reviews: MOUNTAIN VIEW Offers a Pleasing Escape
It's hard to reconcile the name of the title character in MOUNTAIN VIEW with that of its author. "Jocate" seems a variation on Dolly Parton's "Jolene" (when will Appalachian characters have names like "Sue" or "Nancy"?), while author "Teri Feigelson" suggests a world entirely alien to cabins and mountain ledges. Yet, everything seems to come together in Playhouse on the Square's production of the winner of the 2013 NewWorks Playwriting Competition, currently being staged at TheatreWorks. In fact, with its gentle, wistful tone and incorporation of original, tonally related songs, MOUNTAIN VIEW evokes a film from some years ago, the little-seen but much-lauded SONGCATCHER, with turn-of-the-century musicologist Janet McTeer finding substance and artistry in Appalachian music (along with a romantic interlude with a hirsute Aidan Quinn in one of his last leading man roles). It even reminded me of (now nearly forgotten) Bobbie Gentry's concept album DELTA SWEETE, with the artist's songs depicting the characters and area she knew as a girl.
Yet, MOUNTAIN VIEW, despite its similarities to the works of Horton Foote and Earl Hamner, Jr., is Ms. Feigelson's own, loving creation. It's interesting to wonder exactly how much of Ms. Feigelson exists within the teenage "Jocate," in the unenviable position of keeping watch over her mentally challenged younger brother and hovering at the edges of a hardened, chain-smoking mother (an intense performance by Alice Berry) distraught over the desertion of her husband and abusive toward her children. As Jocate completes our view of her with recollections and reminiscences of her loved ones (some now deceased), we discover a family and a way of life as well as the lively inner self of a vibrant, duty-bound young woman.
Like Cinderella being accoutred for the ball, this unpretentious, thoughtful little play has been dressed by Playhouse with some of its most outstanding talent. First of all, instead of a Fairy Godmother, there is the multitalented Ken Zimmerman, these days too seldom seen with directorial reins; and the supporting cast itself is a "Who's Who" in Memphis Theatre -- the indomitable Irene Crist, heaving a bounteous bosom and leaning on a cane, is a wise "Aunt Faye"; amiable Jo Lynn Palmer, working her crossword puzzles and coughing on her Virginia Slims, a cheery "Aunt Pie" -- and those are only two of the esteemed performers here -- Michael J. Vails, Jim Palmer, and Ian Kingsley all have intriguing bits (special mention must go to Isaac Middleton and McCheyne Post, who appear occasionally, instruments in hand, to provide a musical chorus to the characters and situations that unfold). At the center of all this is that fine chameleon of an actress, Morgan Howard (part of the wistfulness about this production is the realization that she will soon depart Memphis to brighten stages elsewhere -- but what a joy she has been!) I have seen this young woman assay an entire range of roles this past year -- and she has always been inventive and interesting. Here, she could well be sporting overalls on loan from Huckleberry Finn. Swinging on her rope, playing hop scotch, lying on the lower branches of a tree, she could be the best friend of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD's "Scout" or THE MEMBER OF THE WEDDING's tomboyish "Frankie." Her performance, mostly a series of monologues, without the "give and take" of other actors, is demanding, and she gives the part an all-out physicality.
If there is any way to improve this play, I would suggest jettisoning some of the monologues (as good as they are) in Act I (there's a danger of repetitiveness) and making it a one-act play, A shortened script would make the revelations that unfold in the last part of the play even more powerful (for this play has its surprises, and they are not always pleasant.)
Finally, I would like to applaud what appears to be a Renaissance in local theatre. There was a time -- a few decades back -- when practically the only local writer who seemed to be creating plays was Howell Pearre. I remember making a special effort to attend productions of his work -- and often they were not fully attended (which is not necessarily an indication of any lack of skill). Theatre in Memphis has really exploded in the last few years, with a real theatre district now fluorishing in midtown. However, there is exciting, original work being done, along with the staging of "tried and true" fare. The adaptations of quality short stories and novels being produced by Voices of the South (whose Alice Berry is in this production), the original and impressive efforts of Jerre Dye (CICADAS) and Justin Asher (HAINT), and numerous, unexpected pleasures from burgeoning entities like Threepenny Theatre Company and New Moon Theatre have offered some challenging, diverse fare for those with an addiction to drama. Ms. Feigelson's richly felt, poetic (I loved the lines about the formation of geese) and admirably performed MOUNTAIN VIEW is yet another step not only downstage, but in the right direction. Through August 2.