THE HOUSE ON THE HILL
“The loneliest moment in someone’s life is when they are watching their whole world fall apart, and all they can do is stare blankly.”
That comes from “The Great Gatsby,” of course, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It also serves as the preamble to Amy E. Witting’s “The House On The Hill,” a production currently making its world premiere at the Contemporary American Theater Festival. And of all the profound phrases one could utter before a play, it’s hard to find one more apt for a story such as this.
Alexandra (portrayed in the current day by a stoic Joey Parsons, and in her formative years by an enthusiastic Sam Morales) and Frankie (embodied, grown up, by Jessica Savage in hot-mess-glory, and an innocent Ruby Rakos as a teen) are cousins and best friends. They go to prom together. Talk boys. Take pictures. One of them even gets high.
The thing is, they haven’t spoken in 17 years by the time we see them, and Frankie decides to pop in to catch up with her former bestie. It wouldn’t be that complicated if there wasn’t a reason — a very tragic reason — they fell out of touch for so long. This being think theater, though, you know that the reason must be traumatic, and you know that the reason must be at the heart of the narrative.
And it is — except in ways that you might realize only after the lights turn up and you walk back into the West Virginia air. Such is what makes “House” so compelling: The underlying tension of what that reason turns out to be. It takes a while to get there, but it’s hard not to sit at the edge of your seat as clues are revealed, demons are exorcised, and a friendship once so rock solid turns to a handful of pebbles — even if both parties involved one-day hoped that it could be a boulder once again.
Savage shines as a wannabe house wife as scared of her future as she is defiant about her past. Parsons, meanwhile, is unrelenting in the hollowness behind her eyes, the emptiness in both her soul and a few bedrooms filling minds in exceptionally heartbreaking ways.
“You have eyes/Of crystal blue/You need to know that/We love you,” one character sings as the lights dim hauntingly one final time. In the case of “The House On The Hill,” however, love is far from all anyone needs.
— Colin McGuire
A LATE MORNING (IN AMERICA) WITH RONALD REAGAN
A one-man show is hard, an accomplishment that deserves praise for merely attempting. Forget about learning dozens of pages of lines; these people still have to act. There’s no safety net. Nobody off of whom the actor can play. It’s just a crowd and a person, all eyes centered on one thing.
So on hubris alone — and perhaps nothing else — “A Late Morning (In America) With Ronald Reagan” is a success. It takes commitment and confidence to try and pull off a 90-minute play by yourself, impersonating a man who might still be fresh in some of the audience’s minds. It’s even more impressive, in this case, when you consider that the production’s original choice for the role, Tim Matheson, bailed on everything, according to reports, for reasons unknown.
Enter John Keabler, a young, tall, lanky man who has the hair of Reagan and … well, little else. Consider: The show is a reenactment of an interview with the former president in 1993, when he was 82 years old. Glowing and devoted as Keabler may be, it’s difficult to buy into a healthy 30-something playing an elderly man with Alzheimer’s attempting to reflect on his life via an interview with an unseen journalist from something called “Wyoming Horse Breeder’s Monthly.”
The fictional article on which the fictional invisible journalist is working is supposed to be centered around everything but Reagan’s political years and the audience is reminded of as much constantly as the sole character here repeats some version of the phrase, “no politics.” Until … well … there is. That comes in the final third of the play, when the former president just can’t help himself from getting into Gorbachev, Thatcher, the Berlin Wall and his infamous economic policies, among other things.
It all wouldn’t be so bad if it didn’t all feel so confused. As Reagan arrogantly recalls all his accomplishments, writer Michael Weller sneaks in his own cheap shots at the current political climate, grabbing at the lowest of low fruit, jokes that once felt poignant, yet now feel sad. Keabler, for his part, is happy to ham it up, looking for laughs in moments so obvious, you can hear audience members finish the jokes for him.
And yet worse, that audience is left with a contraband of questions. Is this supposed to be satirical? Are we supposed to roll our eyes at his relationship with wife Nancy, or are we supposed view it as true, sweet, real love? Does all this mean it wasn’t nearly as bad as we thought it was with Reagan leading the Free World as we consider today’s dysfunctional undercurrent? Is Weller making fun of 40’s ego, disillusion and ignorance? Or is he making the case for viewing Reagan with a sympathetic eye?
It’s hard to tell. And instead of inciting provocation, “A Late Morning” provides too much frustration.
“How do you want to be remembered?” Reagan ponders after the silent interviewer apparently asks. Try as he may, he can’t quite answer the question. And neither can this play.
— Colin McGuire
MEMOIRS OF A FORGOTTEN MAN
A psychologist, a government censor, and a reporter with a photographic memory — all somehow connected in a Stalin-terrorized Soviet Union. That’s the premise behind D.W. Gregory’s “Memoirs of a Forgotten Man,” a drama based in history but more focused on the nature of memory itself.
The forgotten man in question is Vasily, played with blustering swagger by Lee Sellars. A member of the kulaks (a landowning peasant class), Vasily spends his teenage years dreaming of a Marxist revolution. What he gets, of course, is far more brutal than he imagined. Most affected by the new regime is his sensitive younger brother, Alexei, a synesthete who can taste colors and smell words. Played by a naive David McElwee, Alexei gets into trouble as a reporter with a state-run newspaper when his flawless and seemingly boundless memory contradicts propaganda enforced by the Stalin regime.
In swoops Natalya (played by a slightly wooden Joey Parsons), a psychologist who treats Alexei and becomes fascinated with testing the scope of his amazing mind. Years after their sessions together, her work is stymied by a government censor with a personal interest in the case. Each of the characters are thrown together in strange ways as they grapple for security in a paranoid political climate, where recognizing the truth is far more dangerous than accepting a lie.
And yet, the inherent tension of the premise is often swallowed by the dialogue, more concerned with showing off Alexei’s condition than building a compelling narrative. Poor McElwee doesn’t get much to work with when it comes to lines. Alexei’s defining trait is his overeagerness to correct people, tout his photographic memory, and tell other characters what their words smell like — characteristics that make him one of the most annoying roles I’ve seen in theatre this year.
Parsons and Sellars are each tasked with playing two distinct characters, an impressive feat that unfortunately led to more than a couple line slip-ups and some distraction as they changed costumes on stage. Production-wise, “Memoirs” has some of the most elaborate lighting and sets at the festival, but it doesn’t always have its intended effect. More than one member of the audience started laughing at the decision to flash a backlit portrait of Stalin, complete with a thundering sound effect, during climactic moments of the show.
There’s also a disjointedness between the characters as they’re written and where they end up by the conclusion of the play. For more than two-thirds of “Memoirs,” Alexei is portrayed as unconsciously honest and seemingly unable to control his prodigious memory. You wonder how he arrived at the position in which we leave him.
And there’s real tenderness and admiration between Alexei and Vasily throughout the play, which makes the brothers’ final reunion all the more puzzling.
“We choose the stories we tell ourselves,” Vasily says at one point, ruminating on the fickle nature of truth and memory. Unfortunately, in “Memoirs,” the story just isn’t very good.
— Kate Masters