BWW Review: Minka Wiltz Sizzles in the World Premiere of Natalie Symons' NAMING TRUE at Urbanite Theatre
"I would love to see more trans stories by trans people in every theater; that'd be great." --transgendered writer MJ Kaufman
"I'm not sure what it is, but I'm sure there's a story behind it." --from NAMING TRUE
"Write what you know." That's the mantra heard in writing classes across the country. But sometimes you are such a good writer that you can imagine a world very different from your own and create it with all the empathy and specifics necessary to make it come to life. Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf--perhaps the most penetrating expose of married life between a man and a woman--was scribed by a gay man. Women writers (Austen, the Brontes) could write about men; male writers (Tolstoy, Flaubert, Ibsen) have succeeded in creating some of the most famous female characters in literature.
Which brings me to Natalie Symons.
Symons, one of our local playwriting treasures, made her mark locally with memorable productions of two of her plays--the ingratiating Buffalo Kings and the beautiful Lark Eden. She has a new work, NAMING TRUE, about the encounter in a Florida hotel room between a transgendered woman, Amy, and a dying black woman, Nell, in the middle of the hurricane season. They both have been damaged, both living on the fringes of society in different ways. It's gutsy that Ms. Symons, who is neither transgendered nor African-American, dares to tackle such subject matter with these specific characters. As if the only person who could write this play had to be transgendered or black; good writing is good writing, and empathy is empathy. And if the characters resonate, as they mostly do here, then what does it matter who the playwright really is?
Watching the world premiere of NAMING TRUE at Sarasota's Urbanite Theatre this week, I realized that the transgendered angle is done with a matter-of-fact directness, and with taste and honesty. Alexia Jasmene, an actress from Chicago specifically chosen for this role, is fine if underplayed as Amy, a transgendered former reality TV show participant. It's a reactive role, and Ms. Jasmene doesn't burst the stage with bundles of energy. She doesn't need to. She needs to hold her own with the force of nature called Nell on the other side of the room. Nell is portrayed by Minka Wiltz, an Atlanta actress who had appeared in Symons' Lark Eden before; here, she gives what is easily one of the finest local performances I've seen all year.
Wiltz never has a false note in the show's ninety minutes (with no intermission). She's always in the moment, never pushing but open to whatever happens. Her performance is heartbreaking and ferocious, and what we go to the theatre for. I teared up more than once watching her and hearing Nell's sad life story. Part of this is due to Wiltz's incredible talent (she makes me want to take a trip to Atlanta whenever she's onstage; I'll watch her in anything); but her kudos must also be shared with Ms. Symons, who created such a strong, delicious part of this pained, powerful woman.
The script certainly needs some tweaking and perhaps some minor workshopping, but at its core is a very important story with one of the best characters in Symons' oeuvre. There are plot points that need to be ironed out, and some of the dialogue comes across as didactic. The storm itself, an actual hurricane, seemed to be thrown in for reasons I still cannot fathom; is it really necessary to the story, and if so, shouldn't it play an even bigger part? It seems quite forced into the story, and the audience never once got a sense that the actresses felt they were facing a kind of stormy doom. Hurricanes are big deals, especially to people not used to them, but these two don't seem to pay it that much mind. But overall, nitpicking aside, the show is so overwhelmingly powerful that we forgive these issues.
NAMING TRUE is well-helmed by director Daniel Kelly, who obviously knows how to garner extraordinary performances from his actresses. Jeff Weber's simple set design works fine for the piece--a purgatorial hotel room with stacks of books and a food bowl left out for an unseen cat. Joseph Oshry's lighting is also effective, especially giving the sense of the rain's reflection on the wall without overdoing it. Joseph Reynolds' sound, mostly of the circling storm, works well. It's a smart, and smartly produced, play.
I've heard quite a bit about Sarasota's Urbanite Theatre, but this was my first venture there. And I loved my experience. It's a marvelous theatrical space, and the company itself is a breath of fresh air, choosing newer, edgy, brave shows that finds a niche not covered by the other main Sarasota theaters (the Asolo and FST). There are no paper programs here, and I'm still trying to figure out how I like the electronic program (you have to go to the Urbanite website to find it). It's good for the environment, and it saves paper, by I still miss holding an actual paper program in my hands. That said, I appreciated how the program and play information was projected onto a pre-show screen, with definitions ("transgender," "cisgender" "transitioning," and "assigned gender") to help those who haven't picked up a newspaper or ventured online for quite some time.
As I have mentioned many times before in my reviews for Broadway World, Natalie Symons is one of those playwrights that I will follow anywhere. Whenever I hear she has a show opening, I feel like that famous hippy quote from Monterey Pop: "It's like Christmas and New Year's and your birthday all rolled into one." Her plays are alive and filled with quirky characters and situations that cannot be predicted (like applesauce as a roach killer in NAMING TRUE--a quintessential Symons moment). The Buffalo Kings was a near-masterpiece given a Grade-A treatment at freeFall Theatre in 2015. It was an exceptional script, where a three dimensional Christian character wasn't treated as a total clown (a rarity of rarities outside the works of Flannery O'Connor), and except for some obviousness at the end, really opened the door for this phenomenal writing talent. Lark Eden, which is to be read directly from the script (a la Love Letters), follows the journey, the highs and lows, of three women throughout the 20th Century. It's touching, empowering, and again showcased this writing marvel.
And now with NAMING TRUE, Symons has taken a different path, but her funny one-liners and quirky, well-rounded characters (her signatures) still emerge. She's an amazing writer who one day will quite likely break through on a bigger scale. And then our local gem will become a treasure for the world to enjoy.
NAMING TRUE plays at the Urbanite Theatre thru Sunday, July 2.