Thursday, April 11, 2013
Theater review: Locally written Sons of Bennett is an ambitious, but flawed, effort
It was written and produced by Dallas creatives, but it doesn't quite hit the mark.
ADDISON Who says Bible stories can’t be current? One of the most familiar of all the stories we learned as children is the story of The Prodigal Son, a parable by Jesus. The story is about children rebelling against their parents and then seeking redemption when they discover how hard the world can be. This may play out in some way in nearly every family. The meaning can be shaped to meet larger themes, such as redemption from God or evils of squandering money. Though the parable focuses on the son who went away, it also includes lessons for the son who stayed behind and gets jealous. This story appears in the Buddhist tradition with a message that every human must struggle to find their way back home. Joseph Campbell, in his work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, integrates the Bible story with stories from the monomyth, the archetypal story that crosses all traditions of myths and religions throughout human history. But it’s normal for our culture to attribute it to the parable of Jesus.
Sons of Bennett is the world premiere play by Dallas author, Lon Rogers, and it’s being presented by Sibling Revelry Productions at both Addison Centre Theatre and Genesis Children’s Theatre. The play is The Prodigal Son parable transplanted to a modern American family with modern American problems. The twin sons of Bennett diverge in their values, goals and lifestyles during their teen years. One stays home and the other makes his journey through the bowels of Chicago streets. He gets summoned home and the prodigal return begins, with all the clearing of family sins that must occur. The question is whether this family can reclaim the love they all want.
The set for this play was a simple living room. Designed by Taylor Bunn and Will Reinhart, it was the setting for all scenes as the story unfolded through the eyes of the Bennett family. Reinhart also designed lighting and sound, with recognizable tracks of Eric Satie piano solos, though there might have been other artists as well. This was a highlight as these were played through each scene change. I heard someone behind me singing along with the Satie tracks. Scene changes were some of the most peaceful parts of the play, a brief respite from the intensity, though they all seemed too long. As each scene started, the music was simply cut off, and became jarring and frequent enough to expect each time. At two hours long, scene changes weren’t the only things dragging.
In every interesting story, there are highs and lows, intense moments interwoven by lighter moments, some angry or sad mixed with some laughter. Sons of Bennett was presented as a tragedy, with fighting, arguing, life and death demands, and an intensity that started at 100 percent in the opening and stayed that way until the final scene. There were a few lighter moments when Pappy started telling his stories about where he came from and everyone mouthed the story along with him.
I think the actors did credible work trying to show the kinds of emotions a family might feel as one son was absent and the other was dealing with a life threatening illness. But their dialogue was not natural for people in such tension. They spoke like they were reading an essay and the conversation didn’t seem real. It also seemed like every other conversation had a pithy platitude in it. The fault lay in the script in these moments and after a while I stopped counting and started dreading their inevitability. Interspersed with Pappy’s scriptural readings, they gave the impression of a sermon that needed to keep stressing its importance with the consequence being I lost interest in the theme and started listening for the next platitude. I wanted to watch this great story unfold, but the words got in the way.
That’s not to say it was all bad. Actors worked hard to make the story come alive. With Martha’s strong motherly love for both her sons, Laura Jones showed moments of pure love and was the balance between her husband Bennett and Pappy. Jones was a bit more natural because she spoke like a mother, though there were only a couple of moments when Martha shows any happiness. The rest of the time she was intensely sad and worried. Her husband Bennett was played by Chris Tucker. His story challenge was that he has a fatherly hate for his son Luke who he blames for abandoning the family. We find out later there was another agenda that complicated things even more. Tucker walked this line of ambivalence between loving his son and hating his behavior and I saw genuine moments of anguish and self-searching. But his dialogue had continuous pronouncements about his beliefs and his speech was one of the ones most damaged by the attempt at precise wording and excessive platitudes.
Sabrina Ries played Vickie, twin Jared’s pregnant wife. One could imagine Vickie being scared and anguished at the thought of losing her husband. Ries, however, entered the first scene with an angry scowl and she never changed. Although the script may have suggested that Vickie was continually angry, she wanted something desperately from Luke that would change her life completely, and yet from the beginning she made it clear she couldn’t stand him being there.
Pappy, played by Mike Cravens, was the voice of reason and the occasional humorist. He told down-home country stories about his life, but his humor was always juxtaposed between intense arguments, so it was hard to relax enough to enjoy those few funny moments. Cravens was often the easiest to listen to because he created moments of quiet and peacefulness for Pappy while everyone around him yelled. Cravens showed his character feeling an unconditional love for Luke that none of the others had.
Tammy, Luke’s childhood friend and one-time girlfriend, is an outsider, a bit sassy, sexy and tempting. Hannah Knight played her as a cross between the simple girl next door and a young Texas vixen. Knight had some fun lines that gave her a sense of being the small town country girl. When challenging Luke’s disappearance, while also trying to seduce him, she told him he left like a “sneeze in a windstorm.” Knight gave Tammy a 20-something flirtatiousness but Tammy was also stuck in the past and this created a great tension between her and Luke and Knight played this tension well.
Another of Luke’s acquaintances was Calvin, who came to life through Luke’s flashback stories about his time in Chicago. This street-experienced homeless angel was played by John C. Hogwood. His street-wise language and accent made Calvin both menacing and friendly. When he later disappeared from Luke’s life Calvin became the voice of conscience for Luke, actually shadowing him in the scene. Hogwood became a disembodied actor. We saw him but he only saw through Luke’s eyes. This was an interesting effect as Hogwood verbalized Luke’s thoughts, memories of Calvin’s sayings.
This prodigal story is about Luke and Jared, twins who were inseparable through their childhood until Luke disappeared at seventeen after a fight with their father. DR Mann Hanson played both twins, alternating scenes either as Luke, the street-wise and destitute son needing family support or as wheel-chair bound Jared, wanting to survive, trying to be positive but knowing the reality of his condition. Hanson did a tremendous job of playing these two roles with slight character changes, such as the strength of his voice and the focus in his eyes. We visually knew who he was, but he showed that not all twins are identical and gave us enough clues to ask the question about what happened to make them so different. Luke reflected the worldview of someone who had spent many homeless and lonely years. Jared seemed to feel his own vulnerability at the same time as he worried about how the others felt. And in either case, Hanson talked as if he was talking from the mind of each character.
Sons of Bennett was directed by Taylor Bunn, Artistic Director of Sibling Revelry, assisted by Zac Bunn. The challenges of this script were many, beginning with how to get actors to say those words in a way that sounded natural. In a few cases it worked. In others it did not. There was a lot of energy from this cast and they were together as an ensemble telling this story. Actors really went all out for their major emotional outbursts but it became too hard to watch because the outbursts continued for two hours without relief. Couple that with unreal dialog and ever-present pronouncements of thematic importance and you have a difficult show to play and watch.
In Sons of Bennett I saw some good acting and a prodigal son story that diverges from the original. I think it was a good story idea, but the flaws just overwhelmed any sense of enjoyment.
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