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Review: THE OCTOBER STORM Lights Up Hudson Stage at Whippoorwill Theatre

An impressive new serio-comic family drama from "Empire" writer Joshua Allen

Review: THE OCTOBER STORM Lights Up Hudson Stage
at Whippoorwill Theatre
Yvette Ganier plays indomitable landlady
Mrs. Elkins, Photo by Rana Faure

One of the primary challenges for a dramatist is to create for the audience a palpable sense of time and place. Another is to draw characters that are at once believable yet larger than life, to captivate an audience and hold it in thrall until the curtain falls.

In Hudson Stage's production of The October Storm, playwright Joshua Allen accomplishes all of the above, and does it with fluid pacing, natural humor, and a canny instinct for the forititude and foibles of human nature.

It's the 1960s on the South Side of Chicago. Widowed Mrs. Elkins (Yvette Ganier) is an apartment house landlady, as well as caregiver for 15-year-old sassy and moody granddaughter Gloria (Courtney Thomas). Gloria was two years old the last time she saw her mother, who left without a trace.

ABANDONED LIVES
Mr. Allen has serious issues here to litigate -- children abandoned by a parent, Veterans abandoned by their government, wives abandoned by unfaithful spouses -- but the inevitable downers of life, in his hands, are entertainingly leavened by the kind of graceful, easy-flowing humor that springs not from punchy one-liners, but from the personality of the characters. "I'm only 50. Barely 50," says sharp-tongued Mrs. Elkins. "51."

Just when a situation in The October Storm flirts with the obligatory beats of situation comedy, Mr. Allen wisely veers away from formulaic sitcom structure to anchor the scene in human interaction that is earthy yet eloquent. The result is the relatable, serio-comic ups and downs of everyday existence.

To my ears, his dialogue earns the ultimate praise that can be paid to his profession: It does not sound like it is written. It is as spontaneous and unforced as real-life banter. The opening night audience clearly was smitten by that seductive voice.

Joshua Allen's polished stagecraft is informed by his writing for hit TV series "Empire." Doesn't hurt either that he studied at Juilliard under renowned playwright and humorist Christopher Durang (Sonia, Vanya, Masha and Spike).

NOWHERE TO HIDE
He said the main difference between writing for TV and for the stage is the length of scenes. "For TV, it's rare a scene wil go more than three to four minutes," he told me. "In a play, there's nothing to cut to, no car chase. There's nowhere to hide, no bells and whistles. So you have to develop the characters richly enough that they can sustain interaction over ten or twelve pages." He accomplishes that in The October Storm.

The playwright points out in a program note that the play is a paean to the strong women of color who shaped his upbringing in Chicago.

Writing those characters was "easy," said Mr. Allen after the opening night performance. "It's how I was raised. I grew up in a multi-generational household that still had the furniture of the Sixties, and I would spend summers with my grandmother," he said. "A lot of the dialog and the references are things that my family still says to this day, so in a weird way I grew up in a kind of time capsule."

GENERATIONS AT WAR
Gloria's fractious relationship with her grandmother drives most of the action, as they thrust and parry with each other, in the way teenagers and their elders are wont to do.

It's quite a sight to see, and the two female actors are more than up to the task. Both turn in star turns that are by turns explosive, but not out of control, and heartbreakingly vulnerable. As their characters evolve through this slice-of-life tale of two generations at odds with each other, the actors' disciplined shading keeps us locked in, wondering who will prevail in the ongoing war of words and emotions.

The acting across the boards [sic] is first-rate, no surprise in view of the cast's top-notch credits, which include roles on HBO, NBC, Law & Order, and Grey's Anatomy,

If actors could be arrested for sleight-of-hand scene-stealing, that welcome fate might befall Patricia R. Floyd, who plays mouthy neighbor Lucille. Even though she's given some mighty choice lines by Mr. Allen, Ms. Floyd barely has to say a word to elicit warm-hearted laughter in response to her exquisitely timed delivery, double-takes and knowing facial expressions. She's as much artiste as artist, and a pleasure to behold in a supporting role she elevates effortlessly.

STRONG, SENSITIVE TYPE
Let's not forget the put-upon male element in this female-fueled battle royale. As Louis, a Korean War veteran from Alabama who lets an apartment from Mrs. Elkins, strapping Philipe D. Preston brings a stage presence both strong and sensitive. Just as romantic sparks start to fly with Mrs. Elkins, precocious Gloria is also vying for his attention.

Trevor Latez Hayes is affecting as self-conscious Crutch, Gloria's high school squeeze who follows her around like a lovesick puppy. Mr. Hayes's specific body movement convincingly emulates the awkward physicality that can attend the middle teen years of boys figuring out how to deal with coy and clever girls.

Joshua Allen does a wonderful job transporting us to 1960s Chicago, as does set designer Alan C. Edwards and costume designer Leslie Bernstein. Also due credit for this all-around excellent production are sound designer Kimberly S. O'Loughlin, lighting designer Paul Vaillanourt, and stage manager Ann Barkin. As always, the proceedings are masterly supervised by Hudson Stage executive producers Denise Bessette and Olivia Sklar.

'60s TOTEMS
Adding to the '60s milieu are the cultural references peppered throughout, many invoking popular TV shows of the day, such as Gunsmoke and The Andy Griffith Show. We're reminded it also was a time -- pre-remote control-- when simply changing the channel required physical exertion because you couldn't do it without leaving the comfort of your seat.

There's also mention of Bit-O-Honey, Woolworth, Sammy Davis, Jr., Brylcreem, American Bandstand, and record players.

Joshua Allen doesn't overplay those throwback totems, though. That's not part of his elegant style. He doesn't oversell anything, instead inviting the audience to buy in to his world at their own pace, right up until the play's final moment of truth, when a knock on the door resonates with the tantalizing question of what might happen next.

What is likely to happen right after that is the same thing that happened on opening night --- a rousing round of robust applause at the curtain call from an appreciative audience, thankful to once again feel the kind of in-the-flesh electricity that only live theater can conjure.

How To Get Tickets

The 105-minute journey Joshua Allen takes us on, superbly directed by Cezar Williams, runs without intermission. It is at North Castle Library's Whippoorwill Theatre in Armonk (N.Y.), now through Oct. 23. (Tickets and info at HudsonStage.com; 914.271.2811.)

Regional Awards


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