Sunday, October 30, 2016

Review: Two potent meditations on death and life at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis

Until the Flood
Photo: Peter Wochniak
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There are two very powerful one-act plays on stage at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis right now. Upstairs is Until the Flood, a gripping and disturbing look at the way different members of the community reacted to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014. Mothers and Sons, in the studio theatre, also deals with the death of a young man, but under very different circumstances.

Both shows are less about the deaths than about how they affected and changed the living. And about how the living responded to them.

The characters in Until the Flood are fictionalized composites of real St. Louis residents drawn from interviews Dael Orlandersmith-the play's author and solo performer-did with real St. Louis residents. She talked with a broad spectrum of people from all over the metro area: old and young, black and white, from all over the social, economic, and political spectrum. The resulting portraits are never anything less the completely credible.

And that's impressive, since some of those characters are unpleasant people. The unapologetic neo-Nazi who appears toward the end of the show, for example, could easily have become a cartoon of racist ignorance; but he's just real enough to be truly disturbing. As skilled an actor as she is a playwright, Ms. Orlandersmith shifts ethnicity and gender easily, fully inhabiting each character.

Until the Flood offers no easy answers to the "latitudes and attitudes" that divide us, but it does provide nourishing food for thought. That makes it a welcome antidote to the mental junk food so often fed to us by corporate media.

The characters in Terrence McNally's Mothers and Sons are entirely fictional. But they are also clearly inspired by McNally's personal experience as a man of the theatre living through a period that brought both the triumph of marriage equality and the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

As in Until the Flood, the deceased is an invisible but pervasive presence. Andre died twenty years ago of HIV/AIDS. Cal, his former partner, spent the next eight years working through his grief before finding and eventually marrying Will. They now have a young son, Bud, and are living happily on New York's Upper East Side.

Darrie Lawrence and Harry Bouvy
Photo: Peter Wochniak
Andre's mother Katharine, unfortunately, has never really come to terms with her son's death or his sexuality. When she drops in unexpectedly on Cal and Will, she's still radiating anger and grief-a situation made all the worse, from her point of view, by the fact that Cal has moved on and made a new life for himself. The play charts her rocky course towards reconciliation with both the dead and the living.

Darrie Lawrence dominates the stage a Katharine. Confused, raging and unable to cope with her conflicted feeling, Katharine is a character who could become tiresome and almost does, but Ms. Lawrence performance never wavers from perfection and in the end both she and Mr. McNally's words bring something like closure to both Katharine and us.

Harry Bouvy is a warm and welcome presence as Cal, who is essentially the play's moral center. Michael Keyloun is a funny and winning Will and ten-year-old Simon Desilets could not be more charming as Bud.

Michael Evan Haney directs with a sure hand and a good eye for keeping sight lines clean; always a tricky issue for plays staged in the round.

Speaking of things that are perfect, James Wolk's tony apartment set is certainly that, right down to the children's books in the bookshelf. The books are visible to only a small part of the audience, but they're a nice little touch. When Katharine sneers at Cal's description of their place as a home-"An apartment can't be a home!"-the cozy warmth of the set underlines how blind her grief has made her.

Congratulations to Rep Artistic Director Steve Woolf for bringing both of these compelling dramas to St. Louis. Until the Flood runs through November 6th on the main stage while Mothers and Sons runs through the 13th in the studio theatre. They both are well worth your time. For more information:

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