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BWW Reviews: Voices of the South Celebrates Its 20th Season with TEMPLE OF THE DOG

As Voices of the South celebrates its twentieth season with the premiere of Tom Dillehay's TEMPLE OF THE DOG, it seems -- perhaps unconsciously -- to be paying homage, oddly enough, to a couple of theatre giants from the last century, Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller. Almost immediately, I saw a parallel between "Tom" in Williams THE GLASS MENAGERIE and the stifled, suffocating "Ben" in TEMPLE: Both are providers for their families; both "stash" away savings (Tom won't pay the light bill) and plan, eventually, to bolt; both reveal, in poetic soliloquies, their "sensitive," sexual natures that seek release; and both have "monsters" who entangle them with their tendrils and drain them of their life force (in TEMPLE, that character would appear to be the hideously abusive, crippled father "Taylor," whose bile is splattered on everyone in sight; however, Mr. Dillehay has a "surprise" in store for the audience). And Mr. Miller? Long-suffering wife "Wanda," clutching desperately at religion as a refuge from her snarling mate, is every bit as self-delusional as the enabling "Linda" in DEATH OF A SALESMAN -- if "Willy Loman" is digging his own grave, her blind support of him provides the very shovel. Moreover, scenes between Ben and Wanda echo those between the once-promising "Biff" and Linda. I could go on -- is TEMPLE's cheerfully determined teen "outsider" "Ricky Lee" a kind of "Jim" in THE GLASS MENAGERIE? Both characters suggest a kind of "replacement" provider for their respective families.

Yet, all the while seeing these parallels, I saw, too, that TEMPLE OF THE DOG is determined not simply to "suggest" these parallels, but to extend beyond them. Ben's homosexual urges (there's a riveting scene between him and the younger Ricky Lee that is charged with sexual tension), observed and abhorred by the noxious Taylor, are leading him, like a dog on the hunt, to Nashville, where an unspecified man is waiting for him. Ben may be homosexual, but Taylor's lust (one of the Seven Deadly Sins responsible for the accident which has crippled him), directed at the buxom "health care professional" "Tammy," is horribly sexist and revolting. Taylor may call it "normal," but it's obviously not on the same moral plane as Ben's supposedly "unnatural" one.

Mr. Dillehay has done his homework here, and he utilizes symbolism (the apparently humorous device of the naive Ricky Lee's pursuit of the encyclopedia will ultimately make the title clear) and mythic allusions well. However, some of the incidents are painful (the fate of poor "Petite" recalls that of the old friend of "Candy" in John Steinbeck's OF MICE AND MEN, and that will disturb some theatregoers). The second act, in particular, is dangerously close to going "over the top" in its melodrama (by the way, "top" is "pot" spelled backward, and keep that in mind toward the end of the play). Will Ben, like Tom in THE GLASS MENAGERIE, extricate himself from this destructive environment?

Director Stephen Huff has assembled a very fine cast, indeed. I have always enjoyed the performances of Pamela Poletti (her "Kate Keller" in Miller's ALL MY SONS at Germantown Community Theater was beautifully interpreted). Here, her accent is entirely believable, and she gives wonderful shadings to her line readings. John Maness' spiritually and crippled "Taylor" is, as I would have expected, strong and disturbing (four-letter words drop from his mouth as readily as breaths); yet, in his twisted and demeaning way, one can almost empathize with the way that his world has changed since the accident that crippled him. Atam Woodruff could easily segue from the part of "Ben" to that of Williams' "Tom." He is so desperate to salvage something of himself from this disintegrating environment that he, like Tom, resorts to "hiding" (his money? his homosexuality?). It's a demanding role, and Mr. Woodruff is very good in it. As the "innocent" "Ricky," Aris Federman's sweet-faced youngster, desperately trying to "belong" to this family, has an engaging innocence and enthusiasm; and when strong emotional outbursts are needed, he does not disappoint. Finally, Rachael Everson takes a "what could have been" stereotype of the busty "health care professional" and imbues it with humor and sanity. She knew how to milk her lines for humor, and the audience responded.

I must admit, despite all the skill exhibited by those involved, that the play flies off in all kinds of directions toward the end; and in less capable hands, that could knit a few brows and elicit some unsolicited giggles. However, it certainly won't put you to sleep (the disaster-destined "birthday party" at the end will have people from my generation perhaps remembering "when Judy left with Johnny at the party, the party" in Leslie Gore's "It's My Party"; I kept thinking, 'What's going to happen to all that ice cream and cake?") Whatever my reservations, I certainly was not bored, and there is much to admire. Through August 16.


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From This Author Joseph Baker

I received my Master of Arts Degree in English from Memphis State University and worked as an English instructor at Christian Brothers High School from (read more...)