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Powerful memories: Santiago-Hudson in Lackawanna Blues.

The Power of One
By Ralph Hammann

Lackawanna Blues
Written by and starring Ruben Santiago-Hudson, directed by Loretta Greco

Williamstown Theatre Festival, closed Aug. 25

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 invigorating sustenance.

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.

Lackawanna 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.

Return to Sender

A Distant Country Called Youth
Adapted (from 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 sustained delivery.

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 unimpressive size.

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.

—Ralph Hammann

Low Rent

Brownstone
By 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 commercial.

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.

Brownstone 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.

—James Yeara


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