In 'American Fiesta,' Steven Tomlinson's quest for a set of Fiestaware leads him to embrace his past, imperfections, and those who are different
Reviewed by Robert Faires, Fri., Oct. 21, 2005
State Theater, through Oct. 23
Running time: 1 hr, 30 min
Bowls may hold many things. We typically fill them with foodstuffs cereal and soup, popcorn and pasta but as this new solo show by Steven Tomlinson instructs us, they can also be repositories for items less substantial yet even more filling: dreams, desires, family histories, hope. In the State Theater Company's world premiere production of American Fiesta, Tomlinson shares his discovery of this after being thunderstruck by the beauty of a red Depression-era mixing bowl and the desire to possess it.
That bowl, as the show's title suggests, is a piece of vintage Fiestaware, the line of colorful dishes introduced in 1936 by the Homer Laughlin China Co. and quickly snapped up by households across the land, even those hard hit by the nation's economic woes. The dinnerware's affordability was almost as key to its success as its look: smart, sleek curves and lines warmed by those lively, alluring hues cobalt blue, buttery yellow, creamy ivory, soft grass green, and that fiery, orangey red colors as eye-grabbing and seductive today as when FDR occupied the White House, something Tomlinson learns firsthand when he passes the window of an antique shop in the small Oklahoma town where his parents live. He sees one of those bowls and has to have it.
Like Tomlinson's other monologues, Free Trade, Managed Care, and Curb Appeal, this one is a journey or as Tomlinson dubs it here, a quest in this case, one to collect a complete set of Fiestaware. Before you can say "Homer Laughlin," he's off, racing across the state, down the virtual corridors of eBay, and even up to a Fiestaware collectors convention in far-flung Pittsburgh, Pa., to track down and acquire as many of the pearly-toned dishes, cups, and, yes, bowls as he can for display in the new home he's just moved into with his partner, Leon. And as he's chasing after dinnerware, Tomlinson is also on a collision course with matrimony, a partnership that his parents oppose since his spouse-to-be is another man. Thus, his journey also touches on the meaning of marriage in contemporary society, especially between members of the same sex, as well as on the ongoing give-and-take between adult children and their parents, and as if that weren't enough, it also treats on the present divide in American politics and culture, the tension we feel between our impulse to spend now and save for later, how our personalities tend to align with one impulse or the other, and how often marriages are made of partners of opposing impulses.
Despite the numerous subjects at play here, Tomlinson and director Christina J. Moore (ever the sure hand in a Tomlinson production) keep them all distinct and moving smoothly side by side, like the elegant parallel lines that run below the rim of Fiestaware bowls and arc across the backdrop of Christopher McCollum's compact and cozy set. In time, we come to see how they all fit on the same bowl, belong to the same story. As Tomlinson acquires more pieces of the past, he acquires more pieces of his past, of his family's past. He makes the connection to a positively Dionysian childhood episode, dancing around a table while serving "sacred soup" out of a cobalt Fiestaware mixing bowl to Barbie, a G.I. Joe in Ken's clothes, and Ken in a Kleenex toga; and to his father's family, where dinner-table conversation concealed a minefield of sharply drawn political lines to be crossed at one's peril. And through these and other connections, he is able to link to others' pasts, to the histories of those people who, like him, were drawn to these brightly colored dishes and who possessed them before they passed into his hands, each hairline crack and chip disdained by Tomlinson when he began collecting representing a story of their use, their life, the imperfections that signal their humanity.
Not surprisingly, Tomlinson ultimately embraces the flaws in these dishes, as he embraces the human beings responsible for them and others whose paths he crosses in this quest: Leon, his parents, antique dealers, sellers of dishes, neighbors of differing political persuasions. Moving outward in an ever-expanding circle like the mouth of a bowl, Tomlinson makes a heartfelt plea for an end to the divisions of red and blue, of color and class and creed. We're all in this together. Melting pot. Mixing bowl. Same difference.