Monday, March 26, 2012
Theater review: Jar the Floor at Corner Theatre in DeSoto
In Jar the Floor, they overdo and overlook by playing the surface and not the depth.
Family gatherings – either you love 'em or you loathe 'em and wish you were anywhere else but there. We've all been in those awkward situations, usually at least a couple of times a year. To save one's sanity and make it through the day, we put on all the pleasantries we can muster up. Having that common denominator, it is easy to slip right into the celebratory family gathering portrayed in Jar the Floor by Cheryl L. West, presented by African American Repertory Theater at Corner Theatre in DeSoto through April 15.
The basic synopsis is pretty typical – four women spanning the generations meet to celebrate the matriarch's 90th birthday. The usual squabbles between mother and daughter, granddaughter and grandmother, ping pong back and forth during the course of the play – additional game playing comes in the form of an outsider/friend to the granddaughter. Everyone puts on their best outfit, best smile and best attitude to make it through the day in one piece. It doesn't last that long. All the pent up pain, held in hurts come pouring out just like the drinks being consumed. Long ago secrets are let loose and acknowledged.
Director Willie Minor plays a safe game with Jar the Floor, allowing the actresses to be as free and natural in their portrayals as possible but never guides them to reach for a deeper level of understanding with each other. There are some powerful subjects and realizations brought up in the play, and while none are surprising, they are ultimately the meat of the play and barely touched.
African American Repertory Theater always does a credible job with their set design and this time is no different. The living room, step-up hallway door, dining and kitchen area are splendidly decorated as though designer Dave Tenney knows this place well. Family portraits on the walls and on top of the old piano along with African American masks and artwork blends with dollies, old credenza, and covered sofa. I particularly like the detailed touches in the kitchen – cookbooks lined up on top of a real refrigerator, cabinets visibly filled with glasses and food items; a full house actually looking like people live there. I did question whose home it is as it is decorated more like the elderly MaDear's house instead of her more sophisticated grown granddaughter MaDee's home. A better balance of an older woman's belongings mixed with more modern furnishings would be an excellent visual of their age differences. The backyard area with tree house and miniscule garden area rings more true of the back of an urban tenement than a middle class suburb, even a south Chicago one.
Many varied styles of music make up the pre-show, scene change intervals and intermission – from R&B, blues, '80s pop and disco to ballad and classical. It is a nice indicator of the generations and all their musical tastes. Sound design by Lloyd Barnes is appropriate – phone rings, traffic noise, stereo playing, even piano playing. What I cannot understand, however, is the inaccuracy of the effects in correlation to the objects onstage.
It is truly distracting and jerks one out of reality to have the phone stage left and the sound come from stage right, with the piano and stereo doing the same. It is such an easy fix to put a small speaker at the point of the object – and the stage left speaker is never used for any of the effects which would have solved one of the problems. It makes the play drop to amateur level which it need not have done.
Costumes by Terrence Rodgers are colorful, full of patterns and textures with plenty of accessories to go around. The choices, however, confuse me as to the time period, indicated as present day. The last time I saw fingerless, lacy gloves and day-glo, neon detailing was during the hey-days of Cyndi Lauper, Madonna and Prince, not 2012. There is simply too much stuff going on clothing-wise, distracting from the pertinent issues Ms. West is bringing up in her play. If the intent is to mask each character's true feelings with all the stuff then it works. A better visual is to have them take layers off, stripping down to the essence of their relationships, bit by bit, as they are revealed. On a side note, the special effects makeup for Vinnie does not read well, showed throughout the play and should be eliminated.
The roles of these five women are well cast and you absolutely believe they are related. I have trouble with the characterization of granddaughter Vinnie, played by Aigner Mathis. As written and directed, she is rather one-dimensional. Playing pleasantly aloof or overly excited, and assuming entitlement, Mathis never progresses beyond her drug-induced, erratic entrance. The script eludes Vinnie is having a sexual relationship with friend Raisa, played by Hannah McKinney, but the direction leaves it up in the air which may be what Mr. Minor intends. I think both these characters are portrayed as more caricature than they are written so that we lose the heart of their stories, especially Raisa's fight with cancer. That said, McKinney has moments of deep emotion. Her foot rubbing scene with Ms. Hall as MaDear is improvisational in style, completely vulnerable and a highlight.
Professor, daughter and granddaughter MayDee is played with fear and stoicism by Regina Washington. Standing tall and elegant, Washington fronts her emotions with intellectual snobbery, all the while still that abused young girl who was never acknowledged or vindicated. I wish there was less fidgety activity going to acknowledge more of MayDee's apprehension and anguish. Sometimes less is more.
Her mother Lola, daughter to MaDear, is wonderfully enacted by Eleanor Threatt-Hardy. A bold, powerful presence onstage, she makes Lola the center of attention at all times, both visually and vocally. Scripted with a majority of the dialogue, she takes off nonstop, hardly coming up for air. Threatt-Hardy completely understands that, physically and emotionally, Lola is hiding herself with over the top attitude and accouterments. The actress overcomes the direction with a stellar performance.
Once the grand dame of the family, MaDear is now 90 and comforting herself in a world of past remembrances, whether factual or not. Not having much dialogue to reveal her character more, AART's grand dame and co-founder Irma P. Hall makes the most of her portrayal as MaDear. I found myself watching her even in her silent moments while her family's difficulties crash around her. Seeming completely lost in her thoughts, Hall shoots back a perfectly timed coherent retort or exclamation. She masterfully realizes when to command attention or relinquish it, dissolving into MaDear's past. Being present onstage even when the character is supposedly "not there" is the art of an experienced performer.
As I walked out of the theatre, I was disappointed that I never got to truly know these potently remarkable women. The actresses might be willing but are not allowed to reach the core of the play. Too many frills, distractions, and rapid-paced dialogue keep the audience at bay. Through all the laughs, quirky behavior, lots of hair, no hair, and flamboyant costumes, the life-changing, dramatic experiences of some of these women is lost. That is what the play is about, not the comedic one-liners or erratic dancing around, the haughty outbursts from all the daughters or demented outbursts and antics of MaDear, though the playwright uses these as bandages for the women's pain. Some scenes are directed so quickly, we are halfway into them before knowing what is actually being said, confessed or realized.
Lola says it best when laughing something like "You can never over accessorize!" In AART's production of Jar the Floor, I believe they indeed overdo and overlook by playing the surface and not the depth. We come to find the play's title means to shake the floor in dance, in emotion. But it also means to disrupt, like an earthquake, everything in your life you believe is solid and sturdy. I did not feel the earthquake, I was not completely moved.
Pegasus News Content partner - John Garcia's The Column
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