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.