Monday, April 28, 2008

Ashland theater season, 2: Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter; Fences

I ADMIT IT: I didn't have high expectations for Julie Marie Myatt's new play Welcome Home, Jenny Sutter, which we saw in Ashland last Wednesday, the third of four plays we saw that week. And in not looking forward to the production I suppose I'm part of that majority of the public that seems fatigued by Iraq and war: it was shamefully wrong to begin with; it's been dragging on too long; there seems to be nothing right that can be done about it. I believe there are historical inevitabilities; Iraq is certainly one of them.

And another lament about the human damage the war is causing didn't promise an evening's entertainment. So why see it? Well, first of all, we've formed the habit of seeing everything the Oregon Shakespeare Festival offers each season. I was brought up to eat one piece of toast without jam before getting one with: you take things as they come. And the point of OSF is that its artistic direction (which passed from Libby Appel to Bill Rauch this year) balances the seasons carefully, offering about fifty percent Shakespeare, the balance well distributed between standard repertoire and new plays, all set on a fairly stable cast of actors, nearly all chosen with an eye for the developing conversation a season's repertoire will generate, among the audiences and among the plays themselves.

Even while watching it, and thinking about it immediately afterward, Welcome Home, Jenny Sutters seemed less a play than a set of character sketches. But the characters are interesting and often extremely entertaining (funny as hell, in fact); and the lack of purpose of course characterizes the entire American adventure in Iraq: purposeless (and mindless, which this play is not) from the start.

Then too, on reflection Welcome Home is an intelligent response to The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, seen earlier (and commented on briefly a few days ago). I suppose the common ancestor is Thornton Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey, by way of William Inge's Bus Stop, both plays about the dynamics that evolve among strangers tossed together in some overwhelming whim of the Fates — and, come to think of it, isn't that Purposeful Plot enough?

In any case Jenny comes home with a prosthetic leg, but in fact doesn't go home immediately. She winds up in an encampment of dropouts and rejects somewhere in the desert, not far I suppose from where Lindsey and I were stalking wildflowers last month. She responds to a gently dazed preacher who lacks a church, a cynical sociopath who lacks cruelty, an aging flower-child still seeking the right man, and a well-intentioned self-appointed shrink. In the end, perhaps, their examples persuade Jenny she has better opportunities at home with her own little kids, whose potential rejection has kept her from returning. At least I think that's what will happen to her next: whatever, she has the strength and resilience and good humor to survive.

If it's a series of character sketches, the play gives its actors a lot to deal with. The acting was in fact superb, the title role brilliantly captured by Gwendolyn Mulamba; Kate Mulligan and David Kelly on the mark as Lou the hippie and Buddy the preacher, and Gregory Linington superb as the laconic Donald. Jessica Thebus directed with accuracy and resourcefulness, and Richard Hay's scenic design was evocative.

The next afternoon, last Thursday, we saw August Wilson's Fences, one of the ten plays in Wilson's portrayal of the Black American experience throughout the 20th Century. A play per decade: Fences looking at life in Pittsburgh, PA, in the 1950s.

OSF is right to have engaged this keen cycle of plays, and perhaps right to compare it, if only implicitly, as parallel to other such cycles — Shakespeare's history plays; the Oedipus cycle. I'm not suggesting Wilson's a playwright of that caliber, or even that it's useful or even proper to consider whether he is: it's far too soon. But Fences, like the two other Wilson plays we've seen in Ashland (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom; Gem of the Ocean) is a very strong, very rich play, one I'd want to see again a few times, in this production and in others.

August Wilson was a fascinating figure, to judge by his Wikipedia entry: the son of a German immigrant baker and an African-American cleaning woman, he's an interesting man to consider while reading (as I am at the moment) Barack Obama's first book Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance . It is very sad to contemplate the human and societal cost of America's continued "racial" prejudice and bigotry in the century and a half since slavery. Wilson and Obama have a common purpose in their literary work: to convey to the "white" American, and examine with the "black," both the damage this American vice produces and the lie that it is.

What makes Wilson's plays superb is their simultaneous depiction of social and historical issues on the one hand and their interpenetration of an individual's ability to survive and perhaps even flourish within them. Century, country, community, family, self: and then the same in reverse order, continually redistributing the ageless and irreducible qualities of sympathy, intelligence, experience, adaptability.

Fences focuses on a man in his fifties, his longsuffering wife, his two sons (by different women), his damaged brother, and a drinking buddy from his garbage-collection job. Troy Maxson is no Lear, whatever OSF's notes may say, but he's a towering figure, and it didn't hurt my own individual response to the play that he so reminded me of my own father, only a few years younger, similarly damaged by lack of schooling, hatred of cruel father, consequent diminished self-esteem and inability to father his own children. The man is of course analogue of the "race," and the deeper issues of psychology and what I call "mentality" (meaning an individual's more-or-less consideredly evolved address to the context of his life and activity) resonate throughout the play on both the individual and the sociohistorical level.

I can't be too enthusiastic about this production, which left the audience stunned and shaken. Charles Robinson was a magnificent Maxson; ;Shona Tucker grew through her enactment of his wife Rose. Josiah Phillips was a very sympathetic Bono (the buddy). The oracular defective brother Gabriel was played by G. Valmont Thomas with subtlety and finesse. The sons were Kevin Kenerly (the jazz saxophonist) and Cameron Knight (Cory, who escapes his father's cruelty and with his mother offers some hope for the future). Leah Gardiner directed; Scott Bradley designed yet another evocative set; Michael Keck provided the sound and music design.

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