February 1, 2008
by David Ollington
Playwright Ted Swindley boasts an impressive career. Esquire magazine featured him as an Outstanding American in the Field of Arts and Letters. He founded Stages Repertory Theatre in Houston and received national accolades for spearheading the Texas Playwrights Festival. His creation, the musical Always . . . Patsy Cline ranks as one of the most produced shows in the country.
The American Heartland Theatre is currently presenting a world premiere work of Swindley’s Stories My Grandmother Told Me. The play embodies much of what you can read in his credits: conservative American Southern values and evangelical Christianity.
The play and its direction (by Donna Thomason) maintain a consistent storytelling format. Kip Niven plays “Older John Mark,” and shares with us his memories. He spends much of the evening behind a podium stage right. The rest of the actors play out his stories, sometimes in counterpoint to Niven’s narration, sometimes taking the ball and running with it, making us briefly forget Older John Mark’s presence.
Older John Mark even gets into conversations with the other characters. Peggy Friesen, with her usual expertise, plays the title role, Gladys, the grandmother. However, Swindley makes clear that she is not really Gladys, she is Older John Mark’s memory of Gladys. Between stories, Gladys the Memory even gets into altercations with John Mark, and threatens to leave.
“You can’t leave. These are my memories, not yours,” retorts Older John Mark.
With endearing enthusiasm, Dylan Paul plays Younger John Mark. He materializes the memories, playing the grandmother/grandson scenes with Friesen. Charles Fugate, listed as “Man,” and Candice Bondank as “Woman,” fill in the blanks. They play an assortment of necessary others to complete the various stories.
Thomason put enormous mental energy into the staging and arrangement of the action. She had the actors specifically clarify when they break from a moment to verbally spar with the narrator and when they live fully in the memories. She makes full use of all the available corners of space.
Scene designers Shane Rowse and Paul Hough created a central platform with a Southern Victorian décor. Every necessary prop appears on this platform, a cluttered desk, a birdcage, a tea set and a settee. Once an actor steps off of that platform, the trappings disappear. Several rustic benches in this area serve as car seats or church pews, depending on the story. The benches provide a central handle for easy maneuvering.
A membrane seems to exist around the walls of the parlor — land where props don’t exist. When sitting at her desk, Gladys can leaf through papers that are actually there. Once she steps off of the platform she mimes a steering wheel. This works, possibly because of its consistency, but Thomason never clarifies the reason, one enigmatic convention of the production.
Rowse and Hough also placed three bizarre pillars on the stage. Huge and evenly spaced behind most of the action, Rowse and Hough covered them with densely distributed squares of wood paneling, one over the other. During one story, we realize these pillars represent magnolia trees. At one moment, it appears Younger John Mark will climb one, but he barely touches the oddly placed wooden squares.
Rowse and Hough trust the audience’s imagination with miming in other portions of the play. Yet, these grotesque pillars don’t belong; they neither fit into the meticulously detailed parlor or the lower platform where the actors work without props.
Rowse also lit the production. Mostly humorous and sentimental, Stories My Grandmother Told Me includes some chilling moments — a ghost story. The entire production staff reigns strong with these more mysterious segments.
True to his background but slightly tacky upbringing, Swindley’s play focuses on the life of this family. The emphasis is conservative, born-again and very white. Though set in the South (the actors do well with the dialect), the issue of racism barely gets a nod. Gladys refers to the American Civil War as “The War of Northern Aggression.” The speakers in the lobby walls vibrate with gospel music before the show and at intermission. Musical director Anthony Edwards coached out of the actors some lush harmonies in the reverent hymns they sing.
Older John Mark shares how a magazine featured him as someone under 40 and accomplished in Arts and Letters for playwriting, and how Gladys can’t fully appreciate it, calling him “show trash.” At that point it feels the producers cast someone too old to play Older John Mark. Niven appears close in age to Friesen. A more encompassing choice might have been a Younger John Mark in his early 20’s, an Older John Mark in his 40’s, and a Gladys in her 60’s.
With brilliant understatement, Friesen created a dimensionally believable Gladys. She incites the heartiest laughter of the evening by showing us the universal, internal contradictions in this matriarchal role. Possibly her strongest comic moment comes when she gets baffled trying to explain to John Mark the existence of Santa Claus and equating it with the gifts of the Three Wise Men.
Fugate channels several different characters, his strongest being the drunkard uncle, Billy Jr. He plays a minister who Niven introduces as “Elmer Gantry meets Jackie Gleason.” Fugate falls short of manifesting either one; his minister lacks charisma, fire and brimstone.
Stories My Grandmother Told Me provides a comforting chuckle, a nostalgic event and the honoring of a specific socio-economic class. Craftsmanship has gone into this production.
The production runs thru Feb. 24 at the American Heartland Theatre in Crown Center. Call 816-842-9999 or visit www.ahtkc.com.
David Ollington can be contacted at Ollington@aol.com.
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