Sandbox: Young at Heart

Sandbox: Young at Heart

The Yard @ The Vortex,
Through Jul 17
Running Time: 30 min

Remember summer days spent running sunburnt through the sprinklers? Face smeared with mud, sweat, and sticky watermelon juice? Playwright Wade Williams does. His original play, produced by One Theatre Company, is like fizzy cherry pop at the end of one of those sun-baked afternoons -- a little too sweet but a welcome refreshment nonetheless. The play finds two imaginative, but troubled, eight-year-olds playing in the sandbox, where their world of pure imagination shields them from a gloomy reality, including their oppressive mothers -- one a tyrant, the other a worrywart. Wade seems captivated by the resilience and imagination of these youngsters, as well as the way age and experience forces these mysterious qualities to slip from our grubby fists. As the two children, Katey Mushlin and Daniel Lam have an endearing physicality in their performances, a loosey-goosey movement enhanced by the expressiveness of their rich, saucer-like eyes. Though open and unusually trusting, these actors also have a quick anger, as if their emotions seethe right beneath the skin. Unfortunately, any adult playing a child can be uncomfortably reminiscent of Mike Myers' memorable British twit Simon and his drawrings. But director Kregg Foote pushes for respectful performances from both actors; unlike that famous SNL bit, they're not playing for laughs. Admittedly, it would be nice to see a little more meat in this show, which takes a sentimental view toward what most certainly is a complex age. But Sandbox, at an easy, breezy half-hour, is like the joys of childhood: light, uncomplicated, with its heart in just the right place. --Sarah Hepola

Ladies in Retirement: Murder Most Quirky

Ladies in Retirement: Murder Most Quirky

The Acting Studio,
through August 7
Running Time: 2 hrs, 30 min

Less a whodunit and more a how-will-she-get-away-with-it, Different Stages' production of this WWII-era British thriller is full of character. In a remote manor east of the hauntingly named town Gravesend, a struggle among the haves and have-nots of England's middle class leads to murder. Middle class manners and moralities are on display, not to mention an abundance of neuroses, psychoses, and a softly sinister charm; such a well-heeled production should lure enthusiasts of the genre to this costume drama of deception and death.

Under the excellent guidance of director Johanna Whitmore, the talented cast fills the stage with well-rounded, off-center, unique characters. From Heather Biggs' bright and saucy Lucy Gilham, the maid with plans of her own, to April Matthis' concerned and neighborly nun, Sister Theresa, to Stephanie Swanson's offbeat dowager, Leonara Fiske, everyone excels. Bernadette Nason plays Ellen Creed, the companion and waiting woman to Ms. Fiske whose Machiavellian spirit consumes her over the course of the play -- she seethes at times when trifles stand in her way. Nason is equally compelling, however, as her character seeks a modicum of redemption. Lana Dieterich and Melanie Dean as the two other Creed sisters, Louisa and Emily, steal the show with two of the most outlandish characters you could find in an English drama of the period. Needy, hungry, infantile, yet possessed with devious, uncanny prescience, these two pump comic energy into the play. Quin Arbeitman, as nephew Albert Feather, also proves himself up to the challenge as a dashing thief and playboy with schemes of his own (so many schemers!). Imagine the young Pete Townshend as conniving bank clerk, and you get a whiff of Arbeitman's energetic, colorful performance.

Entering the diminutive Acting Studio, the audience is once again treated to an outstanding and detailed Different Stages set, this time by Sandra Fountain. Yet the details of the glorious set painting are not matched by all the elements of the production; numerous shortcomings, all seemingly trivial, are still enough to stop the audience from sustaining that essential question, "Will she get away with it?" throughout the play. For a murder mystery/thriller, attention to details would seem paramount, as every aspect of the story takes on meaningful, clue-like values.

Characters enter complaining of having been drenched or of wandering up to their knees in mud, but onstage everyone is dry cleaned and pressed; the UPC symbol is quite evident on the little jar of rubber cement; a window overlooks the house entrance, but characters walking past it cannot be seen (a shortcoming of the space); on the piano, a newish-looking score for TheMikado (paperback) speaks of today, not the 19th century; add to that a number of opening night line fluffs, sound oddities, and Albert's accidental re-locking of the secret hiding place -- oops! -- before it should have been closed, and one sees a production that requires a little aging for best viewing.

But focus on the acting and Whitmore's precise direction; let the trivialities slide. And, as a bonus, enjoy the actual piano playing by not one, but two of the production's actors, live. Most certainly this kind of attention to detail will keep audiences glued to this quirky thriller.--Robi Polgar

The Young Man From Atlanta: Quietly But Profoundly Human

Through August 8, State Theater
Running Time: 1 hr, 35 min

Will Kidder stands in a corner of the living room of his grand new home -- the envy of 1950 Houston -- clad in a bathrobe and an expression of dismay. This prosperous businessman has seen great turmoil surface in his life of late -- the death of his only son in what looks to have been a suicide, his abrupt firing from the job he has held for almost 40 years, a debilitating heart attack -- and he has had to struggle to retain his composure. But he has just been dealt another devastating blow, a revelation of disloyalty by his wife Lily Dale, and it has taken the fight out of him. His broad countenance, ordinarily a beefy testament to a lifetime of industriousness and optimism, goes slack, the brow drooping over eyes that cool into steely orbs, the skin losing all tension, the expression slipping away as water down a drain. Slowly, silently, we can see this man's inner world, constructed and cared for over decades, crumbling into dust.

This moment, strikingly realized by Dirk Van Allen in the State Theater Company's production of The Young Man From Atlanta, is emblematic of the strengths of Horton Foote's Pultizer Prize-winning script and of this company's realization of it: It is quiet, it is subtle, it is deeply felt, and the more attentive one is to its elegantly understated details, the more it rewards one with dramatic power.

As is often the case with Foote's work, much of the activity in The Young Man From Atlanta appears inconsequential, coffee-table conversation full of common pleasantries and glancing allusions to distant relatives and shared history. But within those innocuous exchanges, Foote has delicately encoded the moral tenets these characters live by, principles of respect and courtesy, generosity and gratitude. They may seem mild by the standards of some, but in the context of these figures' lives, they are potent -- so potent, in fact, that they can make certain small gestures in the play border on the heroic, as when Lily Dale's stepfather Pete offers Lily Dale and Will the remains of his savings to help Will start a new business, or, even smaller, when Will, his heart giving out on him figuratively and literally, pulls himself up from the sofa to greet an elderly visitor who once worked for the Kidders. These modest actions have real meaning for these characters, and when they overcome some obstacle, physical or spiritual, to perform them, there is grace.

Far from being distractions to the larger story of this drama, the pageant of family chat and courtesies fills out the world of these characters and makes their conflict over the titular character -- the former roommate of their son -- all the more affecting. The young man from Atlanta claims to have been the best friend of Will and Lily Dale's son and in the wake of the son's death has come to see them. But his accounts of his life with their son and a relative's report that disputes the young man's tales raise unsettling questions for the staid, provincial parents: What relationship did their son share with this young man? Why did he exhaust his savings in gifts to this young man? Was his death truly more than an accident? They are not questions that fit comfortably in a pristine new suburban home in post-war Houston, and the force with which they echo through the Kidder family manse threatens to bring the walls down around Will and Lily Dale's ears.

We sense clearly the gravity of this threat to the Kidders' well-being, but it comes to us not through explosive confrontations or garment-rending disclosures. Rather, the State Theater Company cast establishes an atmosphere of urgency and tension through gestures, postures, expressions -- an anxious glance at a watch, the agitated wringing of hands, a furrowed brow, a sudden grimace -- hushed declarations which, like Foote's spare prose, can speak volumes.

And also like his prose, they come from deep within. Director Michael Hankin has gathered a company of actors who draw from well below the surface in conveying emotion, and he has pulled from them performances of great sensitivity and expression. Dirk Van Allen provides a skillful portrait of a man forced to confront the life he has built and the beliefs that formed its foundation; he radiates a vigorous confidence and hopefulness that, bit by bit, is eaten away, and we see it in his gradually slumping shoulders and increasingly grim face. Mary Agen Cox gives us a Lily Dale foundering before the void of her only child's death, words pouring out of her in a sometimes comic, sometimes pathetic gush, her voice liquid, as if it too were awash in tears. And the ever-reliable Everett Skaggs serves up a hearty plate of heart in the decent, giving Pete, his folksy enthusiasm and honest compassion adding welcome touches of humor and warmth. Throughout the rest of the cast, the same emotional color and sincerity asserts itself, so that we become part of a community that is quietly but profoundly human.

The only aspect of the production which feels out of place is the score, a moody composition of electronic thrumming which is so grounded in Nineties sound and style that it jerks us right out of that post-war Houston whenever it plays. But ultimately, that is a curiosity which comes between the scenes and cannot defuse the power that accumulates during them. We can still feel the weight on Will Kidder's shoulders, the abyss in Lily Dale's heart, and as the light fades on their final embrace, we can know their yearning for comfort and for the surety of what to believe. --Robert Faires

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The Young Man From Atlanta, Horton Foote, State Theater Company, Dirk Van Allen, Mary Agen Cox, Michael Hankin, Robert Faires, Ladies In Retirement, Different Stages, Johanna Whitmore, Bernadette Nason, Lana Dieterich, Melanie Dean, Heather Biggs, April Matthis, Dianna Dorman, Quin Arbeitman, Sandra Fountain, Robi Polgar, Sandbox

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