The Austin Chronicle


Local Arts Reviews

Reviewed by Rob Curran, January 19, 2001, Arts

A Name for a Ghost to Mutter: Close But No Cigar

State Theater,

through February 4

Cyndi Williams, the State Theater Company, and the city of Austin stand close to trailblazing glory with A Name for a Ghost to Mutter. In her script, Williams uses the fuel for great drama: colorful writing, focus on relationships, big climax, tidy resolution. Does she try to smoke too much?

Four storylines chronicle four generations of a Southern family. Skillful David Jones plays B., who wants Lala, a tough character rendered with feeling by Lara Toner. Lala appears to B. as a promise of happiness. They meet in a 1940s martini bar on her 18th birthday. He's already a divorced family man. Self-possessed Lala cares little about his age and status. As an orphan, she wants only his love and she does everything to deserve it. A master of the paraphernalia of love -- lighting the lady's cigarette, eating out every day of the week, silk dresses -- B. never loves Lala, though he makes her his wife. She finds it hard to leave him, despite her dreams.

From this relationship, Williams reaps scenes worthy of the Harvest Festival Best New American Play award she won for this play. Lala and B. benefit from fleshy character and quotable lines, such as B.'s "I'm not serene, I'm just old."

Elsewhere onstage, plots are too weak to support either Williams' writing or the actors' performances. In the present day, Lana Dieterich makes her corner of the stage feel like home as the mother, Lucretia. Peyton Hayslip, Anne Hulsman, and Ron Berry (as Maud, Julie, and Augie, Lucretia's brood) capture sibling tension and have fun. But Williams' script does not exploit the rich capital of a hidden legacy. While the discovery of a large sum of money dredges up old family tensions, nobody loses it. Instead of added bitterness, self-interest, ugliness, the family becomes more attractive when they find Lala's lucre.

Gabrielle (also Peyton Hayslip), represents the pioneer generation. She reads aloud letters to her sister. In the letters, Williams' language breaks free of trodden territory; they would be beauties seen on the page. Well-chosen words re-create the atmosphere of 19th-century Oklahoma. But the scenes on the reservation described by Gabrielle sound like they would be more fun presented than spoken. This lack of spectacle suggests that maybe Williams spends too much time with Eugene O'Neill and not enough time with Eminem.

Director Ken Webster and set designer James Barker make innovation look simple. They divide the stage into four time zones. The accuracy of the Gunn Brothers' musical signposts means that Webster can move us 50 years in five yards without assistance from a single prop. Projected photos add atmosphere and aid the imagination, thanks to William J. Stewart, lighting designer.

All the hard parts accounted for, all the right moves taken, but the play stops just short of smoking. The State Theater needs a local writer of Cyndi Williams' caliber on their stage. Cyndi Williams needs professional talent with the range and resources of the State to produce her work. The audience needs more blood or a lady with a cigar or some controversy.

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