Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander: Time Passages

Dougherty Arts Center, July 16
Running Time: 1 hr, 50 min

"Time, Time, Time, see what's become of me."

Whether or not playwright Preston Jones was actually grooving to the Simon & Garfunkel album Bookends as he wrote the script for Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, this middle work in Jones' reputation-making "Texas Trilogy" shares that sentiment in the opening line to Paul Simon's "Hazy Shade of Winter." In it, we make a stop in the life of the title character at age 17, then, like a stone skimming across the surface of a lake, we skip ahead 10 years in Lu Ann's life and, after a brief visit with her 27-year-old self, skip ahead 10 more years to see what's become of Lu Ann at 37. It's Jones' way of playing the hard realities of adult life against the rosy expectations of youth, and Time is the unseen character watching the evolution of one big-dreamin', big-talkin', can't-wait-to-hit-the-road-and-shake-the-dust-of-this-one-horse-town-off-my-ass small-town West Texas high school cheerleader into a hard-workin', hard-knocks, one-time divorced, one-time widowed small-town West Texas single mom who is forever tied to that one-horse town and has stopped even dreamin' about the world outside it.

A quarter of a century has passed since Jones penned Lu Ann, and considering how some other items from that era have aged -- the World Football League, streaking, Grand Funk Railroad -- one might reasonably fear that Time has had its way with this comedy, too. But Time has been kind to Preston Jones, if the recent production by Bent Spectacles, OnStage, and K.S. Travis is any measure. The old gal still has the sass, the grit, the good humor, and the humanity that impressed so many people in the Seventies and put Jones' fictional village of Bradleyville on the theatrical map. Yes, these characters are very, very familiar, and they lean heavily upon their Texasness in twangy dialects and colorful country phrases, but they do so with an authority that rings true. Types they may be, but Jones has drawn them from life -- and drawn them with not just their by-Gawd picturesque Tex-pressions intact but their feelings, too, and the odd little quirks of behavior and contradictions that make them more than Lone Star cartoons. While Lu Ann has fared poorly in matrimony, she knew love and she makes that clear. In her and in her family and friends, we see flashes of loss, regret, resignation, tenderness, and sweet acceptance, the emotional colors that deepen them the way the darkening blue at twilight makes a Texas sky seems so much more full.

The performers here managed to fill in quite a lot of those colors, and they succeeded in suggesting that unspoken intimacy that people in small communities share. Eric Love and Michael Stuart are both credited as director, and while it's impossible to know who did what, I'd guess that Love's deep familiarity with the material (he wrote his Masters thesis on Jones) and Stuart's considerable stage savvy mingled in some way to shape their success. In any case, the actors evoked that small-town Texas sensibility with an easy charm, stringing out the drawls enough to give us the flavor but not so long that we lose our taste for it. Some were memorable for their humor -- Weldon Phillips' prickly Rufe Phelps, Ray Prewitt's hick-ish Olin Potts, Laura Alexander Lowry's impish adolescent Charmaine -- while others linger for their more serious sides -- J.C. Shakespeare's Skip, the big-dreamin', big-talkin' Korean War hero who winds up a shell of himself, shuffling groggily around his sister's home; Michael Stuart's Billy Bob, who went from giddy high school athlete to sober minister, whose anxiety at revisiting his past was evident in furrowed brow and a thousand small tics.

Then there was Kim Travis' Lu Ann. She established a strong humorous core for the character -- her eyes would go wide as she lets fly some crack, then narrow with sly consideration of what she'd said -- that remained clear throughout Lu Ann's three ages; rare was the smart remark that Jones penned that she didn't score a laugh from. But more impressively, she shaded that humorous core over the course of the play, from know-it-all irreverent teen to seen-it-all cynical twentysomething to can-hardly-believe-it-all bemused mid-lifer. She didn't belabor the character's aging, but it was there in sweetly subtle ways. If she was imploring Time to look her way, it could clearly see -- we all could see -- what had become of her. -- Robert Faires

A Soldier's Play: The Story Behind The Murder

Hyde Park Theatre,through July 31
Running time: 1 hr, 45 min

A black man, doubled over and possessed of a fiendish smile, staggers about and babbles, "they still hate you," while stabbing his finger repeatedly into his solar plexus. Nearby, unbeknownst to the drunken man, a gun is raised, a shot fired. The man drops. Two assailants make sure he is dead, then run off into the dark Louisiana night.

The dead man is Sergeant Vernon Waters, a tough army man in charge of a troop of black soldiers still waiting for their orders to go to Europe and fight the Nazis. His death provides the mystery around which this Pro Arts Collective production revolves. Was the local Ku Klux Klan responsible? Or perhaps some of the white officers who share Fort Neal with the blacks? Or was the murder something else, something unthinkable?

Charles Fuller's play, which Hollywood turned into A Soldier's Story, pulls no punches when it comes to black and white attitudes in the South in 1943. Missing, too, is any soft, ameliorating finale. The play's protagonist is the investigator, Captain Davenport, a black man who is chosen for the task but given almost no respect by his peers or the lower ranking camp officers, whites all. Only the black enlisted men are in a sort of awe: One of their own has made it, even temporarily (Davenport is an unglorified MP back at his own camp). His journey toward gaining the upper hand in his investigation, however, takes a back seat to the much more compelling story behind the murder.

Playwright Fuller unfortunately makes too many demands on his protagonist in moving the investigation along to tell his story; so many of the scenes rely too much on Capt. Davenport, amiably played by Victor Steele, who interrogates, pleads, and, finally, takes control from the white power structure. Jorge Meave, the camp's Captain, Charles Taylor, is used mostly as a foil for Davenport and seems unusually weakened on stage for this actor with so much presence. At times he is barely audible. After a confrontational and unhelpful start, Taylor finally takes Davenport's cause as his own, but it is hard for us to tell why.

Among the best scenes are those with the ensemble of enlisted men, when the combined energy of the lads (all Negro League ballplayers and members of the camp's unbeaten baseball club) sends the play to raucous heights. Dewy Brooks, Dario Thomas, Michael Fontaine, Stephen Solis, Michael Bryant, and Alan Keith Caldwell portray the roomful of black soldiers with vigor, and, at times, a deep empathy.

But most interesting are the dramatic twists that reveal the truth behind the murder of Waters. Don Stewart plays the sergeant doomed to die, and this is a powerful, sensitive performance -- much more than a hardened drill sergeant at work. Stewart finds the ugly core to his character and ennobles it, creating a fine contradiction and the real heart of this drama.

Pro Arts artistic director Boyd Vance directs the ensemble on the open Hyde Park stage mostly to good effect, although some of the meandering office scenes allow the play to drift. Technically, too, the play could use some tightening. This is not an all around professional outing, but Pro Arts always finds a way to make its audiences feel like family, to get close to the ensemble, and to entertain. -- Robi Polgar

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Dance, Painting, Drawing, Sculpture, Museum, Robert Faires, Pro Arts Collective, Charles Fuller, A Soldier's Play, Boyd Vance, Victor Steele, Don Stewart, Robi Polgar, Bent Spectacles, Onstage, K.s. Travis, Preston Jones, Lu Ann Hampton Laverty Oberlander, Eric Love Michael Stuart, Weldon Phillips

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