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DAVID T. FOSTER Ill/Staff

Sam (played by Jim Gloster) adjusts his mirror as Natalie (Rebecca Koon) tailgates him during the opening scene of "Road Rage: A Love Story"
earlier this month atthe Charlotte Repertory Theatre's 15th annual New Play Festival atthe Booth Playhouse. The festival wraps up today.

Curtain drops on new-play fest
Theater-in-progress marathon enriches city's arts cachet
he party's almost over, at
least until next year and the
next Charlotte Festival/New
Plays in America.
Charlotte Repertory Theatre's
15th annual festival wraps up today, with a 2 p.m. workshop performance of "Home on the
Range," a play born at the festival
two years ago. The festival's first
leg, earlier this
month in Booth
Playhouse, entailed
four staged readings, one concert
reading, 2% roughand-tumble hours
of the Blue Shift
EnsemTheatre
ble's "Sport'' and a
couple of thousand
exhausted theatergoers.
Whew!
Klndamakesyoufeelasthough
you live in a real arts mecca. Just
like the sight of a stylish young
couple with European accents at
the Founders Hall box office on
the festival's opening night, which
coincided with an evening of Beethoven in the Belk. There they
stood, like tourists milling around
the TKTS booth in Manhattan,
choosing which they'd enjoy.
Charlotte Repertory Theatre t:Jliterary manager Claudia Carte
Covingt<;>n, literary associate C ·
ol Bellamy, managing director
Keith Martin, play directors Steve
Umberger, Terry Loughlin, Alan
Poindexter and Anne Marie Costa
picked and cast the four plays to
be given staged readings from
about 350 submissions. Each of
the four got just 16 hours of rehearsal time, Covington explained
to each night's audience- so many
of whom were repeaters that it felt
like a family reunion by week's
end.

T

JoAnn

Grose

A new play festival is a complex
process. Just ask the folks at Actors Theatre of Louisville where
the 25th anniversary Human Festival in March and April will include productions of seven full.
length plays, a comic anthology by
16 playwrights and the traditional
"Phone Plays" over the pay
phones in the theater lobby.
New-play festivals are hothouses for growing both playwrights
and playgoers. The playwrights
get to hear their words spoken,
hear how audiences re!l.ct. The
playgoers get to see works-inprogress, to meet playwrights and
to learn about the process of theater.
Every Charlotte Rep performance began with Covington explainingthe mechanics of a staged
reading, how a play progresses
from page to concert reading to
staged reading to workshop to full
production.
(Judy
Simpson
Cook's "Benedictions" just ended
thatjourneywithafullproduction
earlier this month.) Every performance finished with playwright,
director and cast onstage under
house lights, fielding questions
and comments from the audience.
"What was your inspiration?"
"Why did you do this?" "Am I the
only person who feels this way
about that?" "Did you want it to
feel like a sitcom?"
Or, best of all, after a performance of Mark De Castrique's "A
Dying Business: A Comedy in Two
Acts Plus a Funeral," about a
fourth-generation funeral director
who doesn't want to join the~­
ly business: A young man in the
packed house told the playwright,
"I'm the fourth-generation in a
family funeral home and the first
man in the family who didn't become a funeral director."
And then, just as if he were

LAST CHANCE
Charlotte RepertOIY Theatre's 15th annual Charlotte
Festival/New Plays in America
ends today With a workshop
performance of Brooke Hailey's "Home on the Range," at
2 p.m. in Booth Playhouse (enter through Founders Hall, corner ofTrade and Tl)'on streets
in uptown Charlotte). "tickets
are $11-$14. Call (704) 3721000.

planted, an older man spoke up
from another part of the theater,
saying, "And I'm the father who
offeredhimtheopportunity."
The audience roared.
De Castrique's play was the
only comedy among the four
staged readings, the only one of
the four to tackle issues of race in
the contemporary South. Mark
Eisman's "Shove," Wendy Hammond's "Road Rage: A Love
Story" and Angus MacLachlan's
"Bridge" all dealt with heavy issues of crime, recovery, intimacy
and violence in our contemporary
society.

Of the festival's first four playwrights, all were white. Hammond was the only woman
(Brooke Hailey, author of this
weekend's workshop production
of "Home on the Range," is also a
woman). De Castrique was the
only first-timer.
Covington describes WmstonSalem resident MacLachlan as
"the Clifford Odets of our theater."
The beginning of "Bridge," the
most powerful of the four new
plays, was a brief news item about
bystanders watching a motorist
involved in a fender-bender on a
bridge beat the other driver until
she jumped to her death. The
script, MacLachlan's third play
produced by the festival, takes a
leap of its own and imagines the
lives of the bystanders afterward.
MacLachlan has also performed
two of his one-man shows and
acted with Charlotte Rep ("Angels
in America"). His "The Dead Eye
Boy," winner of the $10,000 Lois
and Richard Rosenthal New Play
Prize for 2000, opens in New York
on April I? with Lili Taylor in the
lead.
That's what can happen when
you grow your own playwrights.
Reach JoAnn Grose at jgrose@charlotteobserver.comorcall (704) 3585282.

.---------------------------&.

lling in on.
The raw voices
ofplaywrights
emerge at Charlotte's
new play festival
tis, as I begin this report, 11 :35 p.m. Thursday. I have spent II of the past 29 hou~s in
the theater watching lour plays. True, fwas
just a civilian audience member. But in this
theater, even the audience works.
The Charlotte Festival/New Plays in America,
which ends its lour-night marathon tonight with
two staged readings in Spirit Square's Acting Studio, is unlike any other theater in the region.

I

At most plays, you pay your money, take your
seat and watch the play. What you see is the
product of an arduous process: writing, rewriting, selling, auditioning,
directing, rehearsing, lighting, opening, acting, and
about a thousand other ings.
At the festival, sponsored
by Charlotte Repertory Theatre, we several hundred
who sit in uncomfortable
chairs and close, noisy conlines of Spirit Square's 99seat Acting Studio aren't
Theater
seeing the end result of th e
I
artistic process. We are parTONY
ticipating in it.
BROWN
We see the playwright
cringe and laugh and wring
his or her cold hands as the
play is read aloud by professional actors for what
may be the first time. We see the actors, scripts in
hands, finding their characters as the words are
lilted off the page and into the public domain.
We hear the voices of America's playwrights,
·
raw and visceral.
. And we s~ffer and celebrate along with the artISts at work m front o f our eyes. It is a heady
experience, rich and rewarding.
Alter the plays, after the applause, we do not
r~tire to the bar or go home to relieve the babySitter. We stay and talk about our shared experience in the theater. We bounce ideas- some
nutty, some useful -off the playwright.
The next time we go to the regular, lazier theater, it will be at a distance, for we are once again
removed from the artistic process and the tension it creates.
. It's the dlffer~nce between climbing KilimanJaro and watchmg a travelogue about mountain
climbin~. .
.
Now m tts seventh year, the (ilarlotte Festival/New Plays in America is m1te vital than ever.
The plays are more whole a~d stage-ready.

-

Claudia Carter Covington (right) directs the
cast of "Miracle at Graceland" (from left),

Duke Ernsberger, Molly Gross and Mitzi
Gunter.
Although many of us have a hand in the process, Carol Bellamy and Claudia Carter Covingto n, who chose these scripts from among 550
nationwide, deserve the loudest applause.

Sharon Merle puts the finishing touches on
her Dolly Parton hairdo as Ruby Rayburn in
"Miracle at Graceland."
The audiences are bigger and more in tune with
the festival's purpose. And the high-caliber
directors and actors, drawn by the high-tension
energy, work miniature miracles alter only 12
hours of rehearsal.
This year, the festival is presenting four distinct
voices and four wonderful plays, all with something to say, all with substance, humor and - in
one case- more than a whiff of terror.

After, of cou rse, the playwrights.
.
A few days ago, in previewing the plays, I said
the festival had not yet produced a big commercial hit. On Thursday, it may well have: "Miracle,
at Graceland," by Oregonian Dorothy Velasco.
It is a raucous and sometimes randy Southern
comedy.
Jolene Jenkins (a deadly serious Elvis Presley
fan) is desperate to get pregnant. But she isn't so
sure her husband, Earl (who went to Alaska to ·
get rich working on the oil pipeline but didn't
realize it was already built), is up to the task.
So she and Earl go with her mother to Graceland, the Memphis mansion where Elvis Presley
lived , to draw inspiration from his eternal flame.
She gets more than she bargained for. In one
of the wildest seduction scenes ever, the spirit of
Elvis does Earl's job for him .

'I

r

Extraordinary
'Benedictions'
satisfies quest
for substance

.
11

ed of those junk-food enertainments that leave
you unsati!lfied, craving
real nourishment? Well, lamb,
Charlotte Repertory Theatre
has got a play for you.
Judy Simpson Cook's "Benedictions" spreads a table for
those hungry for spiritual
thrust and parry. While this
means that the world premiere
drama
strays
into the overly
talky now and
again- it is still a
work in progress - it also
sends
people
out of the theater
thinking
and discussing.
(The crowd that
stayed for the
"talk-back" after
Wednesday's preview was the largest
ever, said director Steve Umberger.)
In telling the story of the Rev.
Jesse Warren (Pam Galle), a
40-ish Presbyterian clergywoman in deepest faith crisis,
her vinegary director of Christian education (Mary Lucy Bivens) and a gay man (Sam Robison) searching for a home in
the house of God, "Benedictions" asks the tough questions: Why do people suffer? Is
there a "sin scale" that makes
some sins more acceptable in
God's eyes? How do we love
our neighbors, and who are our
neighbors anyway? How do we
preserve the institution of a
worship community without
turning the community itself
into a false god? Is it OK to approach God with a joke?
These questions, of course,
are not exclusively Presbyterian, not even exclusively Christian.
Nor is "Benedictions" a
Southern play, as some suggested during Wednesday's
talk-back, even though the
characters mention such local
institutions as Loaves and
Fishes and Harris Teeter. That
is simply a good playwright anchoring the universal in the
particular.
The cast of seven works together as have few this season.
The chemistry between Galle
and Richard McWilliams
("Proposals") as her husband is
particularly believable, as is
that among her and her so
(Jason Loughlin and w· '
Culp). The Wednesday preview perlormance standouts,
though, were Bivens, Robison
and Duke Ernsberger as the

JoAnn
Grose

. .ii;~a;~-~~~·oiAMA"/pag;;i9i

DAVID T. FOSTER IIVStaff

Agnes Day (Mary Lucy Bivins, left) talks with Jesse Warren (Pam Galle) during a scene in the Charlotte Repertory Theatre's "Benedictions" by Judy Simpson Cook. The production Is the world premiere of the play.

Extraordinary 'Benedictions' will satisfy
your hunger for substance in the theater
DRAMA from lBE
bean-counter from the church
Session. These three inhabit their
roles.
Bivens' genteel but explosive
enunciation can make meaningful and funny even so mundane a
line as "Can I get you some coffee?"
If you've ever belonged to any
organized religion, you'll recognize her character and Ernsberger's pinched elder, yearning to be
free, as well as Robison's young
rebel insisting that jazz can be a

WORLD PREMIERE
WHAT: Judy Simpson Cook's "Benedictions," performed by Charlotte
Repertory Theatre.
WHEN: Through Feb. 4. Times and
days vary.
WHERE: Booth Playhouse, Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, 130
N. Tryon St.
TICKETS: $17-$24.50.
DETAilS: 372-1000orwww.charfot-

-

terep.org.

s acred ritual.
The entire design scheme -

Wake Forest faculty member
Frank Ludwig's setting, Eric Winkenwerder's lights, Rebecca
Cairns' costumes - is a textbook
example of design that creates an
enveloping atmosphere without
swamping either actors or script.
Let's hope that by tonight's official opening, Jesse's stoles are
pressed;
Winkenwerder's
stained-glass lights and Ludwig's
Gothic arches need no touch-ups.
They're already miraculous.
Reach JoAnn Grose at jgrose@char-

lotteobserver.com or (704) 358-5282.

'Ghostman' A Chilling Search For Truth
"The Ghostman" is relentless.
The play will make you cringe
and shut your eyes so you can't see
its truths. But 11 just keeps on.
Given its fully staged premier~
by Charl9tte Repertory Theatre in
Spirit Square Fliday night, Wendy
Hammond's play is about a Mormon named S1;0tt who must find
the truth: Is he msane, or did his
father repeatedly rape him from
the age of 4?
A psychiatrist tells him it
doesn't really matter whether it
happened. But Scott screams: The
truth do matter. It does matter
what people do.
Truth is a pretty elusive thing.
But Hammond forces it on us.
But for all this honesty, the
scnpt is fractured, composed of
several do:.~en quick, cinematic
scenes that make it rather unwieldy for all but the most wellequipped theater companies.

Tony
Brown

Charlotte Rep, the city's resident professional theater, is not
endowed with a lot of money, nor
is Spirit Square's new Duke Power
Theatre a high-tech space. But under the sensitive and imaginative
direction of Steve Umberger,
Charlotte Rep proves itself very
rich indeed.
This play was presented recently
in a workshop by the Long Wharf
Theatre in New Haven, Conn., one
of the country's best professional
theaters. But even under Broad-

way director John Tillinger's ~uid­
ance, "The Ghostman·• was didactic and overwrought.
Umberger, however, finds ways
to amplify the script's power. Us·
ing a simple set of coffin-like
boxes, one elevated platform, a
theater drop and a single chair,
Umberger takes us deep into the
mine-like mind of a deeply disturbed man.
And in the role of that man,
Charlotte actor Graham Smith
gives the performance of a lifetime. Smith, one of the city's most
active talents, is almost always
good at what he docs.
But after seeing his deep commitment to this very demanding
role, in whtch he uses neither hyperbole nor saccharin, one is
tempted to say he has previously
been wasted.
Smith's performance reaches a
crescendo when his character at-

tack his own mother. He goes
beyond actmg and into an intensity so deep one cannot avert one's
eyes despite the pam.
The fine supporting cast is led
by Linda Pierce, who suffers her
own share of pain as Scott's wife.
Rob Treveiler, a white man, has
the unenviable task of attempting
to play a Hispanic man 10 the
cast's only weak link.
If you think you will be offended by this play's religious setting or its volatile subject, please
do not go. But if you have the guts,
"The Ghostmarr" will repay you
with a rare commodity: truth.

If You're Going
8: 15 p.m. today, Tuesday-next Saturday. Feb. 27-March 3 and March 6-10,
3 p.m. next Saturday and March 10,

Spirit Square'a Power Theatre, 345 N.
College St. $8 to $17.50. 333·8587.
noon-5 p.m. -kdays.

-

68

SATURDAY JANUARY 29.2000

Author shows
open heart,
keen ear in
'Deer' drama

'T

he Deer & The Antelope
Play'' unfolds as if told by a
chatty, canny, put-yourfeet-up-'cause-I'm-not-in-anyhurry Southern woman of a previous generation.
Hyouneedfora
story to arrive
.l.V'IJ~IU.lWU. quickly and deciSiVely at its end,
you may fidget.
But if you relax
into the natural
rhythms of the
conversations,
you'll get to know
four
women
whose problems and tentative triumphs you'd want to share- and
along the way, the play will dig
down into their psyches deep
enough to make you feel an emotionaltug.
For all the laughs in Mark
Dunn's script, here given a world
premiere staging by Charlotte
Repertory Theatre, the play
plumbs serious depths of sadness.
It begins on the night a fire destroys the home of nurse Carol
Montgomery (Pam Galle), whose
husband has left for a younger
woman and whose daughter
Mindy (Amy Campbell) has already attempted suicide.
Carol and Mindy move in with
grandma Eleanor (Mary Lucy Bivins), who's glad to take them into
her two-story home (designed in
exacting and thorough detail by
Anna Sartin). She's happy in her
quiet life, though.she's harbored a
crush for 40 years on the alcoholic
she reluctantly refused to marry.
In print, this sounds like the
kind of angst-ridden thing to send
an audience home with a headache, not a lump in its thr?at. •

1awrence

Yet Dunn fiiii:ISnumor in all the
crannies of these situations, and
the picture brightens when Kenetta (Barbi Van Schaick) comes
to board with Eleanor in what was
supposed to be a spare room before the fire. Kenetta, who describes herself correctly as "a
walking party game," cheerfully
sets out to make everyone happy.
The play would be trite beyond
enduring if she worked miracle
cures. Instead, she helps the women understand how to accept their
situations, forgive the causes of
their problems and focus on their
strengths. (Naturally, they supporteach other, too.)
Director Steve Umberger has
been helping Dunn shape this
play over the past two years; it
graduated from the Charlotte Festival: New Plays in America, the
Rep's annual series of staged
readings. (The next festival starts
Feb. 8.) It had the same cast in the
reading, which explains the
smooth flow of the perlormances.
In fact, you'd have a hard time
deciding just what makes these
women seem so authentic. Is Eleanor real because Dunn's dialogue is so genuine, because Bivins invests her with just the right
mix of perkiness and puckishness, or because costumer
Rebecca Cairns puts her in the
pink pantsuit that's a virtual uniform for such an older woman?
You could ask the same questions of Kenetta, whom Van
Schaick makes a one-woman
Funkytown; of Carol, whose fP:eat
weariness Galle conveys W1thin
tWo minutes; or of Mindy, to
whom Campbell brings girlish
buoyancy and womanly pain.
One thing is sure: Dunn's ear
doesn't let him down.
He knows how the mundane
and the momentous mingle in the
conversation of a household coping with tragedy, how ideas of suicide suddenly creep into chitchat
about work or boyfriends or onion
rings.


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