Tuesday, June 19, 2012
Theater review: The Wake of Jamey Foster at Pocket Sandwich Theatre in Dallas
A straight-up quality drama dressed up as a comedy.
The Wake of Jamey Foster (playing at Pocket Sandwich Theatre's through June 30) is a day-in-the-life look at a rural Mississippi family coping with the loss of one of their own. While the play is populated with enough oddball characters and farcical interplay to earn the label of ‘comedy’, the script insists on digging beneath the zaniness and searching for genuine pathos as the various family members cope, not so much with the loss of Jamey, but with the tangled relationships they’ve constructed with one another over the years. There are moments when Pocket Sandwich Theatre’s production leans a bit too heavily on the silliness and chaos, and the human drama gets lost. But as a whole, the show manages to walk that fine line between comedy and drama, thanks largely to a cast that bring some inspired acting to the stage, and not simply the mugging and funny accents that would have sufficed had farce been all they were shooting for.
As the play begins and the members of the Foster and Darnell families are introduced, there is something both recognizable and confusing about how all the puzzle pieces fit together. While Henley’s script offers a rather astute reflection of the convoluted family histories of many a small town family, the cast and performances radiate the dynamic and familiar chemistry of individuals accustomed to one another, despite coming from such disparate places. The specifics become secondary to the emotional relationships themselves. For instance, the first two characters to enter the stage, Katty and Leon, are not mother and son, but in-laws, connected by no more than a tenuous chain of marital unions of other in-laws and siblings. Upon discovering this, there isn’t confusion as much as a sense of slow discovery of how these people really feel toward one another, not simply an illumination of their family tree. It is tangled and it is complicated, but it is family. This is a recurring theme throughout the production.
This layered take on the Foster and Darnell families is made accessible by a strong cast who never let their eccentric performances tip into burlesque. Ben E. Bryant and Charissa Lee portray Wayne and Katty Foster as the sturdy, upwardly-mobile family touchstones, who don’t really crumble as their secrets and disappointments are revealed, but are certainly humbled. Collard Darnell is the exploded rubble of a woman as played by Trista Wyly, who finds ways to define the character’s chaos with brisk economy in simple physical acts such as how she wears a mud-spattered red dress. Family friend, Brocker Slade, portrayed by Kenneth Fulenwider, seems the ill-natured and loud-mouthed galoot right up until the moment where you discover the source of his ill-nature, when he becomes something else entirely. Leland Miller plays the much put-upon Leon Darnell with a combination of charm and overbearing determination. Though much is made of Leon’s lack of intelligence, Miller thankfully doesn’t play him as a dullard, more so with a dignified simplicity. And enough can’t be said about the odd and strangely-committed performance of Jād B. Saxton as the not-all-there orphan Pixrose. Jād curiously plays Pixrose as if she exists on a different plane of reality than everyone else, and her peculiar moment-to-moment reactions (and everyone else’s reactions to her) are some of the best stuff in the show.
The anchor of the cast turns out to be Catherine DuBord, whose conflicted widow, Marshael, is fascinating in the myriad motivations that drive her reactions to the death of her husband, Jamey. Marshael is a jumbled cacophony of emotions, and DuBord is very effective in deciding when to play what notes. Much hinges on DuBord’s ability, particularly in the second act, to strike that fine balance between wackiness and despair demanded by the script. And while some of her anguish borders on becoming heavy-handed (a fault that lies with the script more than with the actress), DuBord serves the material well and makes possible an ending that is far more poignant than the first act makes seem possible.
From a production standpoint, the sets and properties of both Rodney Dobbs and Robin Coulonge, respectively, create a vivid environment in which Jamey Foster’s wake can play out. Dobbs’ set design presents a great number of novel angles and levels across which several scenes take place. Great character moments such as Marshael tossing mints into her late-husband’s casket or Brocker drunkenly attempting to serenade his sweetheart are made possible by the inventive placement of a stairway or a balcony. Barbara Cox’s costumes create nice moments as well, including Collard’s unfortunate red dress and Pixrose’s stockinet legs. Jeff Vance’s lighting design steers the audience’s attention between the various locales in the deceased Jamey Foster’s home, which is useful in a staging that encourages characters to remain on stage and interact even when they are not the center of attention.
This brings up the direction of Susan Sargeant, who succeeds in the respectable task of charting a steady course through the potential pitfalls, a script like Henley’s could present in less sure hands. Sargeant wisely allows the various character arcs to play out as revelations to the audience rather than gimmicky character turns. The people who inhabit this reality do not change. Only our perceptions of them do. Equally effective is a choice to leave many characters on stage in their ‘off’ moments. Character ‘business’ is taken to another level as Sargeant seems determined to have smaller mini-scenes constantly playing out in the background while the intended scenes play out as scripted. The multi-leveled set design allows for all sorts of complimentary action to evolve away from the spotlight, almost to the point of being distracting. A scene in the living room, for instance, between the men may be the important moment according to the script, but having the women stationed in the now darkened bedroom, silently miming their way through a giddy girls-only bonding conversation nicely pays off a tense scene from a few moments earlier. I’m honestly not sure if those moments are scripted or not, but they serve the show well in fleshing out the relationships and bolstering an already strong sense of cast chemistry.
Pocket Sandwich Theatre bills itself as “the most fun you can have in a Dallas theatre.” It’s a venue that emphasizes silliness and fun, known for its great food (food and beverage service is available an hour and a half prior to show time) and corny interactive melodramas (where throwing popcorn at the stage is sometimes permitted). Amidst all this, it would be easy to overlook the fact that as a theatre company, Pocket Sandwich Theatre can also dazzle you with a straight-up quality drama. Even if they do dress that drama up as a comedy with The Wake of Jamey Foster.
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