Friday, September 30, 2011

"Lost Boy Found In Whole FoodS" from Pittsburgh Playhouse

Eponymous's first visit to The Pittsburgh Playhouse proved a fruitful one. "Lost Boy Found In Whole Foods" is the story of a middle-aged, white divorcee who takes in a Sudanese refugee, one of the infamous African "Lost Boys" and the emotions she, her biological family, and the unexpected family she acquires, experiences through trying to help just one person.

Lights rise on a decpetively simple and organic set. The lighting design on panels around the stage give off beautiful colors and emotion of sunsets, rain and even the grey of sorrow. The sound design using "Dinka" music almost seems to set the pace for show with the short scenes and swift progression of time echoed in the music that switches to American rap when the emotional situation calls.

The middle-aged white divorcee, Christine, played by Laurie Klatscher, is the classic middle-aged white American. She wears khaki and carries a leather explorer bag but never goes anywhere in an SUV that only sees paved roads. Even her sixteen-year-old daughter, Alex, played by an angelic-looking but fire-tongued Connie Costanzo, points out that her mother's recent shopping at Whole Foods is just some fad.

On one said shopping trip, Christine meets Gabriel, the Sudanese refugee from the title. He is charming, friendly, angelic even, which is what the character calls for and is played with remarkable attention to accent, language and mannerisms by David Anthony Berry. Much to the chagrin of her daughter, Christine decides to bring him into their home, in a sincere but near-sighted attempt to help.

Klatscher brings an honest earnestness to Christine, as someone who wants to help but also wants the problem to be fixed right now. Castanzo's first appearance on the stage as the frustrated-at-the-world Alex is so convincing as an actual teenager, most parents in the audience will have their teeth on edge at the familiar sounds and door slams of a hormonal morning battle.

What no one forsees is that Gabriel comes with baggage. The personification of this baggage, which includes death, lonliness, isolation, survival and shame, comes in the form of Panther, Gabriel's imposing friend who Christine never expected to have in her house. Jamil A.C. Mangan reprises his role from the original production in New Jersey and gives a silent, powerful performance as a man who saw too much, much too young. As sullen as Panther is, Berry makes Gabriel as friendly and open. The two talented actors standing side-by-side effectively demonstrate that suffering can be cover with a smile as well as a sneer.

A great performance was turned out by Shammen McCune, who plays the social activist  Segel Mohammed, a woman who works in the trenches, so to speak, managing and aiding the everyday lives of refugees who've made it to America. McCune takes the stage with both hands and is magnetizing every second she's on it. As Segel, she is a woman of authority who is always right, who always fights and doesn't take an ounce of crap. It is a shame we have to wait till Act II to see her, and Eponymous feels for the people who had to sit behind her back for her wonderful performance.

The slow moments of the play are when Christine meets with another middle-class white American volunteer, Michael played by Ben Blazer. With the rest of the play being such a rich mix of inter-racial politics and language, the scenes about two white Americans discussing the white American perspective with their similarly white American sense of humor just felt unneccessary. The entire Michael character could probably be sacrificed for more scenes with the much more dynamic character Segel or with the daughter, Alex.

Now let's talk about emotion, to anyone in the audience, particularly the parents, this play is going to resonate. There is no way it can't. "Lost Boy Found..." is all about orphans, mothers, lost children, lost parents and displacement, and, on opening night, there were several wet eyes in the house. This wasn't out of horrible imagery or torturous details of human suffering, but out of a gentle, honest and strong connection of the audience to the people onstage over a shared point of reference, family.

But there are some flaws in the play that the skilled actors work around rather than play. When Christine walks into Whole Foods she is inexplicably looking for something to change her life, and the barrier between her and this stranger is non-existent. There is a massive confrontation between Gabriel and Panther that is resolved a bit too easily considering the magnitude of the event. Christine and Alex's relationship stops being explored in Act II. The play resolves itself emotionally, then continues for two more scenes and a twist that doesn't really feel earned.

But, the work avoids many cliche's of "plays with a message". Monologues addressed to the audience are kept to a minimum, making the ones that are there stand out with a special reverence. The characters are warm, there is no clear "bad guy" we are meant to hate. The antagonist of the piece is the problem, which is too large for seemingly anyone to really do anything about.

But there lies the magic of "Lost Boy Found..." We are inspired to do something. The play is a love story to the individual volunteer, doing what you can, when you can. What it takes Christine the majority of the play to discover, is that what little she can do is enough -- as long as she doesn't do less.

-Eponymous can spell "Eponymous" from memory after years of study with the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band, not to be confused with The Ramones. Eponymous enjoys daschunds, but only from a distance, and small, round-shaped things named Earl.

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