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THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hello Out There’ and ‘Stirring Stu’

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Artists’ Repertory Theatre combines the classic and the brand new in a program of two one-act plays at Cal Arts Severance Theatre. You get a rare opportunity to see a William Saroyan play in his hometown, combined with a new work by local playwright Thornton Davidson of the Woodward Shakespeare Festival.

Saroyan’s  “Hello Out There,” which opens the double bill, is a searing and brutally economical piece of theater. It packs into little more than half an hour not only two “ordinary” lives but a steely glimpse at the loneliness and despair abundant in a hard-scrabbled country that handsomely rewards those individuals hard-working or lucky enough to rise to the top — but often shrugs over those not destined for wonderful things.

The Young Man (an accomplished Aaron McGee), who calls himself Photo-Finish, is a drifter in jail in a tiny Texas town so small that a prisoner is left overnight locked in alone. The only person around this evening is The Girl (Katharine Dorian), named Emily, the jail’s part-time hesitant cook. She has lingered, she admits, so she can talk with this interesting stranger.

The man is in jail accused of rape, which he says he didn’t commit. His explanation sounds convincing — but considering that a vigilante mob may be on its way to the jail, his guilt or innocence seems somehow beside the point. What is important, in Saroyan’s piercing way of cutting away all the clutter, is the here-and-now connection between two struggling souls. This is communication on an intense, guttural level in which the niceties of language — the flow of small talk, the maneuvering and dalliance of words — fall away to an exchange that seems far more primal. (The Man doesn’t even bother calling Emily by her “real” name, choosing instead to address her as Katey.)

Director Julie Ann Keller gives the play a mostly solid staging. Chris Campbell’s simple but effective lighting design, which creates the suggestion of a cell, adds to the moodiness of this piece, which in Saroyan’s forceful prose never seems melodramatic. (Keller’s use of recorded voices for two minor characters, alas, feels jarring and tenuous.) I was particularly entranced by Dorian’s physical and emotional immersion into her character. Her frame tense and slightly hunched, she exudes an almost wincing sense of self-effacement. Yet there’s something redemptive, too, about how she grabs hold of what she can in the charged, bare situation in which she finds herself.

“People are the same everywhere,” the Young Man says. “They’re only different when they love somebody.” In just a few minutes onstage, Saroyan creates a vivid world in which these words ache. It’s a sharp, scorching experience.

Keller pairs “Hello Out There” with the one-act “Stirring Stu” by Davidson. Two brothers — Stuart Dunbar (Benjamin Baxter) and his brother, Andrew (McGee) — gather at a funeral home prior to the service for their mother, who lays next to them in a closed casket. There is tension between the brothers.

Stuart, the emotional center of the play, is critical of the funeral arrangements, from the program to the flowers. But it becomes apparent that he is distraught in far deeper ways. He can’t let go of his mother. And he harbors resentment of his brother, whom he always felt his mother liked more.

What happens next is what you might call exceedingly black comedy. The results may creep out some viewers — and intrigue those who like to see boundaries pushed. The casket is opened, and the corpse becomes like another character in the production.

Finding a tone that conveys both caustic comedy and heartfelt grief is a tough proposition for any playwright or director, and “Stirring Stu” in its present form never finds a comfortable fit between these two extremes. The play struggles because there isn’t enough in Stuart’s acerbic and melancholic flashbacks onto which a casual audience member can latch. We get pithy and literate food metaphors and devastatingly wry references to the cancer that took his mother’s life, but for a piece that’s about coming to terms with unresolved relationship issues, somehow the relationship between mother and son feels detached.

Adding to this production’s uneven feeling: Baxter seems miscast in the role of Stu. He recites in this role rather than wrestles with its deeper shadings. (McGee, along with Dorian — who has a small and memorable turn as a family member — are stronger.)

I make a distinction above of “casual audience member” because I don’t fit into that category. “Stirring Stu” is apparently an autobiographical piece, though there is no note from the director or playwright describing it so. For the second time in two nights I found myself unable to separate the personal from my perception of a show.  (See my review posted earlier today of “The King and I” for the first example.) The playwright’s mother was Madeline Davidson, former Bee food editor and a good friend, who died in 1995 of cancer at age 64. In the play, the mother dies of cancer at the same age. Literate and enticing food references and quips abound. A mysterious young girl named Madeline, played by Makenna Frisby, makes an appearance.

As I sat watching “Stirring Stu,” then, it was Madeline in the casket.  It was tough for me. I felt drained afterward. Two friends with whom I saw the show, however, who never knew Madeline Davidson, merely walked away confused, as if they’d intruded on someone’s awkward, rambling grief.

I have a deep and abiding empathy for the playwright, and the fact that he so unreservedly lays his own extended grappling with his beloved mother’s death out there on stage for all to see is compelling. I’m not sure this play works in its present form, however, though I do think there are ways the playwright could make it more universal. Again, I am not a dispassionate observer, but to me, “Stirring Stu” doesn’t feel so much like a play as a private bereavement.

Responses to "THEATER REVIEW: ‘Hello Out There’ and ‘Stirring Stu’"

Thornton Davidson says:

Thank you, Donald, for your thoughtful and mostly accurate review of Stirring Stu. Certainly those who knew my mother will find it difficult to separate my dramatic effort at dark redemption from their own evoked feelings and recollections. Though I tried to write beyond mere private bereavement, no one — especially dramatists — transcends their own DNA and the strands that, twisting, make it up. Hopefully those who are more casual and dispassionate in their observance will see some of the universal elements I was reaching for. Though I can’t promise to make you less uncomfortable with my next play, I will promise to leave mother out of it. – the playwright

Mark C says:

I took my two children to see these two plays. My 10 year old son has been introduced to theater arts so I felt is was a good opportunity to grow his interest. I do not share the intimate perspective that Mr. Munro has to review the second play. I do not know who Madeline Davidson is nor am I aware of a connection between the playwrite and the topic/theme of the play. I do have a very personal and emotional connection the the theme having lost my 40 year wife to breast cancer.

The props and setting are at the mortuary for a viewing to occur. My children were immediately aware of the subject matter as the play unfolded. In every family there are tensions between the siblings at the time of a parents demise.I saw the older brother Stewart strugglng with his inability to let go, and the younger brother, Andrew’s ability to let go. This contrast served as a driver for the underlying theme “Stirring Stu”, which was based upon their mother’s culinary skills thus the constant references to “foods” and “recipes” throughout the play. The young girl, Madeline, enters the play for but a brief moment. It was obvious to me that she was an apparition of the mother as she had no connections to anyone in the “family” and did not belong there. Her purpose set forth by the author is to convey to Stuart that if a 10 year girl “gets it” about death, her hampster, then he as an adult should be able to as well.

My 10 year old “got it”. He correlated the theme of this play to his own experience and saw the value of the play for what I think it was intended to show.
1. Life is short. 2. We must learn to move on. 3.Through the parents recording, our parents know us better than we know ourselves as they informed Stuart that he too must take over the spoon.
Someone has to stir the stew. The food metaphors selected by the playwrite bring home the idea that life is not a homogenous thing. We all have to struiggle with “dark matter” at times just as I had to for my then 5 year old son in explaining to him how to let go of his mother.

This play addded to his already confrimed closure on his loss. I saw this play in a detached way as an author’s way of expressing a serios topic in a comical and intensely emotiional way.
The extreme act of opening the casket and touching the corpse at times demonstrate the irrational behavior that can overwhelm a person when they love someone as much as Stuart loved his mom. That’s what theater has a license to do. Art can step across those boundaries to make a point.

So, if a 10 year old boy can grasp the meaning of this play, then I can’t agree that someone would walk away scratching their head and wondering what just happened on that stage.

It was well written and though out, and if it was an auto biography, then kudos to Mr. Davidson and thanks to him for sharing his mother’s passing with us.

Benjamin Baxter says:

I’m sorry for the manic performance last Friday during Stirring Stu. As you might recall, I’m still new at this, and it came down to Opening Night jitters. (Not that I’m not to blame, but that is the explanation.) As an audience member, you deserved better.

If it’s any consolation, the other performances have been really … “cooking.”

a friend says:

Never apologize to a critic. He won’t apologize for his critique (nor should he). Give what you have to give… that is more than we deserve. As the Bard once wrote, “if we all got our just desserts, who shall scape the whipping.” I enjoyed it very much.

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