memories: Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues.
Power of One
By Ralph Hammann
by and starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, directed by Loretta
Williamstown Theatre Festival, closed
The WTF’s mini festival began with the two-person play, For
the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again, in which playwright
Michel Tremblay paid dubious homage to his mother by recreating
her on stage through the dramatization of key encounters they
shared in real life. The result was an undramatic series of
banalities that did nothing save make one want to put a muzzle
on the prattling mother played by Olympia Dukakis. Matters
couldn’t be more different in Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s tribute
to his nanny who brought him up in the absence of his mother.
Lackawanna Blues is a beautiful piece of theater that
represents the one-person show at its most engaging.
In the best tradition of the one-person show, we not only
meet the main character Nanny, but also some 19 residents
or neighbors of Lackawanna in upstate New York. While an impressionistic
painting emerges of Lackawanna itself, all of the supporting
characters, including Santiago-Hudson himself, contribute
to a vivid, ever- developing portrait of the remarkable Nanny.
By the time the play is over in 80 swift minutes, we know
her so well that we can anticipate her unflappable responses
to life’s big and little challenges, and we come to love and
respect her so much that we miss her. The two words with which
Santiago-Hudson ends the play, “Well done!” have never landed
with such impact and provided such simple-yet-profound catharsis.
Soft-spoken, dignified, calm and resolute, Nanny was the heart,
conscience and open hand of Lackawanna. She frequently interposed
herself between other people and their destructive or potentially
harmful behavior as was the situation when Santiago-Hudson
came to her as a young child; she took him into her apartment
at the boarding house she owned while his mother worked across
the street at a bar. A master teacher as well, Nanny (known
to others as Miss Rachel), knew how to manipulate her opponents
while allowing them to maintain their chipped dignity.
Excellent when he was last here in A Raisin in the Sun,
Santiago-Hudson raises the ante and the lofty roof of the
Adams Memorial Theatre. With exquisite shorthand he creates
characters as diverse as his absentee mother, Nanny’s bullying
brother, an abused white woman, her prizefighter husband,
a one-armed suitor named Mr. Lucius, an orthodontically and
mentally challenged giant called Sweet Tooth and even a raccoon
who was fond of Nanny’s breakfast cuisine. No matter what
gender, race or age, Santiago-Hudson believably embodies all
with his virtuoso voodoo.
Santiago-Hudson’s speech is musical with varying tempos and
rhythms that continually color the stories and augment the
changes in mood. He is periodically accompanied live by Bill
Sims Jr. who has composed original music for his blues guitar.
The two flow back and forth and merge with an inevitability
as Sims takes his inspiration from the monologue’s music,
which he supports while offering Santiago-Hudson additional
In turn, Santiago-Hudson plays the harmonica, making it speak
and sing with uncanny humanity. He also sings with dynamic
results and further draws us in with his infectious dancing.
In one of the dance highlights he plays male and female partners
in a dance he calls “doing the dog.” Lusty, ribald, humorous
and hot, the pulse quickens as the hips gyrate, the shanks
shake, the buttocks bounce and the jaw drops.
Even his manner of moving upstage for a well-deserved drink
of water is elegantly yet subtly dramatic. And unlike in some
shows (A Distant Country Called Youth, for example),
these brief drinks are not begrudged him for making the show
stop. Instead, they allow us to catch our breath and let the
events soak in.
Blues may have been put in repertory with A Distant
Country Called Youth, but it is Santiago-Hudson’s play
that has a true dramatic arc and sense of poetry. As was that
presentation, this is given a first rate production by the
WTF. A testament to everlasting goodness, pure talent and
the special power of the one-person show, Lackawanna Blues
brings to a dignified close the WTF’s first season since winning
the Tony award for Best Regional Theater.
Distant Country Called Youth
letters of Tennessee Williams) and directed by Steve Lawson
Williamstown Theatre Festival, Williamstown,
Mass., closed Aug. 24
It’s not accurate to bill A Distant Country Called Youth
as a one- person show, a genre typified by a single actor
engaging the audience in an extended monologue. More appropriately,
this is a dramatic reading of letters. And, however well done,
a reading doesn’t communicate with the same immediacy as does
Matters are worsened when the work is as dramatically moribund
as A Distant Country Called Youth. “Distant” is the
operative word here.
This is not to disparage the sometimes engaging letters that
Steve Lawson has edited—from The Selected Letters of Tennessee
Williams, Vol. 1, 1920-1945—into this epistolary reading.
Anything that sheds light on the genius of Tennessee Williams
is of intrinsic interest, and Lawson has done a service for
those without the time or inclination to read the actual book
from which the letters have been distilled. In about 80 minutes
we follow Williams from age 9 to age 34 when he was beginning
work on A Streetcar Named Desire. The show is sluggish
and flat in its first half, but gains in momentum as one connects
more fully with the references to Williams’ more familiar
works, especially The Glass Menagerie. As well, it
ends before we are ready for it to, just as our curiosity
is being piqued about the roots of Streetcar.
I wish that Lawson had been less exacting in having the dates/locations
to each letter read; projections of this material on the screen
behind the acting area would suffice and allow the material
to move more fluidly. The screen is utilized to sporadically
project slides that illustrate the letters, but the relevance
of each photo is not always clear. Additionally, the images
should be larger, crisper, better matted and level. It would
also help to have more slides so that the relative few that
are used would feel more integrated into the material. Or
they could be cut out altogether, especially at their current
As the reader, Andrew McCarthy cuts a handsome figure on stage,
but not one with sufficient magnetism and range to draw us
in all of the time. Maintaining a consistent Southern accent,
his voice is generally clear and pleasing enough to listen
to, although there are sections where a few words are lost.
Matters would be improved if he were directed to tighten matters
up and take fewer studied pauses after reading dates. Stage
business, such as lighting cigarettes and pouring water, when
coupled with such pauses slackens the almost non-existent
rhythms that Lawson seriously needs to establish throughout
the piece. The lateral crossing from one of three lecterns
to another becomes routine and feels unmotivated especially
as it follows the same pattern and seems only a bald attempt
to provide some visual variety. Placing the lecterns on different
planes and at different distances to the audience might help
distract from the monotony rather than emphasize it.
While much of the material suffers from a sameness of delivery,
McCarthy is good with some of the more maturely humorous passages,
and he is especially good in those episodes that deal with
Williams’ frank discussion of his homosexuality and promiscuity.
There is no attempt made to sensationalize such material,
and McCarthy finds a wayward dignity as he suggests Williams’
wry bemusement, mild self-deprecating humor and inner knowledge
at what he has lost at the expense of experience.
Ultimately, however, there isn’t a compelling reason for this
rather shapeless and unenthralling reading to be presented
as a work for stage. I’d be more content to hear it as an
audio recording, Michael Carnahan’s rich setting and Jeff
Nellis’ complementary lighting notwithstanding. That would
also eliminate the intrusion of the high-pitched hearing devices,
cell phones, coughing and candy smacking that too often go
unchecked in the theater.
But then, I didn’t hear any such disturbances during Lackawanna
Blues. Perhaps the audience realized that A Distant
Country is just a wannabe.
Josh Rubins, Peter Larson and Andrew Cadiff; directed by James
Warwick; musical direction by Daniel T. Lavender; choreography
by Isadora Wolfe
Berkshire Theatre Festival, Stockbridge,
Mass., through Aug. 30
There are four levels to the set, the interior of a three-story
brownstone in Brooklyn. There are four apartments in said
brownstone, each depicted by a different room: study, kitchen,
bedroom, studio. There are five characters who move about
the set and sing 26 songs in under two hours. The play is
a 1984 recipient of the Richard Rodgers Award for Best New
Musical, and it depicts events from a year in the life of
the five characters.
And while the set has four levels, Brownstone the musical
has one. This is as pleasant, as innocuous, as obvious, and
as safe a musical as could be created. Brownstone is
like the mating of music with television’s Friends,
done to 1970s-type melodies with pleasant concerns and pleasant
ends. Set “sometime next year,” Brownstone has a netherworld
quality to it; no real people are depicted onstage. Brownstone
is Rent lite, a Weightwatcher’s musical meal microwaved
for an on-the-go middle-class audience that doesn’t want to
be bothered with thoughts, feelings or ideas. With songs that
were recorded—as the program proudly notes—by Bette Midler,
Michael Crawford, Dionne Warwick and Liz Callaway, Brownstone
is a commercial enterprise that feels like it was designed
to please all, offend none, and be as memorable as a paper-towel
The musical begins with Stuart (Kevin Reed) moving into the
top-floor studio one morning, and the long-term residents
sing “Someone’s Moving In”: “Is someone moving out? Is someone
moving in?” they harmonize as the bottom of Stuart’s cardboard
box bursts open and his five books fall out with a thud to
the annoyance of platinum blonde Joan (Stephanie Girard).
She, in turn, is annoyed by her across-the-hall neighbor Claudia
(Sheila Vasan); together they sing the duet “There She Goes,”
wondering suspiciously what the other does, what drugs the
other is on.
Stuart meanwhile falls for Joan, singing the ditty “Pretty
City”: “She’s Manhattan, I’m Wisconsin. She’s the Waldorf,
I’m Howard Johnson.” Opposites attract, but when a rich boyfriend
beckons from Maine, the country-loving future trophy wife
doesn’t bond with Stuart.
Meanwhile the married 30- something couple Howard (James Barry)
and Mary (Susan Schuld) sing about the frustrations of their
work in “Fiction Writer” and when to have a child in “We Should
Talk.” Act I ends with Howard singing the humorous “Babies
on the Brain”: “Rosemary had a baby, don’t forget.”
Act II has songs about the joys of spring cleaning, strangers,
ex-boyfriends, breaking up, and getting back together. There
are no conflicts, no discoveries, no observations. What the
musical desperately needs is a hint of life, perhaps a song
called “Noises in the Night” about what really makes brownstone
living voyeuristically fun, or maybe something like “Led Zeppelin
at 6 AM” about what really makes brownstone living annoying.
ends with “Someone’s Moving Out” as Joan leaves, and Stuart
and Claudia mirror each other stretching in the street. The
fun of the city just never ends at the brownstone. BTF could
have selected a much more challenging choice for its first
musical in the Unicorn Theatre, but that might have disturbed
the neighbors. Brownstone never will.