Just as bad acting can take even a great play and drag it into the scrum of boredom and inattention, so too, can great acting lift even a slightly wanting script into high cotton.
Thatâ€™s the story of "October, Before I Was Born," written by Lori Matthews, who lives in Stoughton, outside Madison. The play opened Friday night at Milwaukeeâ€™s Chamber Theatre.
Matthews grew up in east Tennessee, and her play is set against a real-life event, the 1960 explosion at the Eastman Company, lynchpin of the company town of Kingsport, Tenn.
The story tells the tale of three people: Martha, whose husband and son work at Eastman; Anne, who is married to Marthaâ€™s son and is seven months pregnant; and Houston, Marthaâ€™s son who has just finished a seven-year prison term after killing a man in an argument.
The three have not heard a word about the fortunes of their loved ones. They received brief information from the radio, but at sunset, the radio signed off. Houston had taken the television set apart in order to fix it but was unable to put it back together, so they are left without television. The telephone is a party line, and so many people are talking that itâ€™s nearly impossible for them to make or receive calls.Â
This is a setup for a story of suspense. Do they make it through the explosion or not? What happens to Anne and the baby if her husband dies? Can Martha go on if her husband doesnâ€™t make it?
Instead of a story of suspenseful intrigue, the story wallows a bit in the childish jealousies and fragilities of the two younger people and the profound certainty of Martha, who has determined that her way of dealing with potential tragedy is to think about something else and get everyone else to do it too.
At the end of the play, Martha and Anne â€“ hoping for a car to get Anne to the hospital â€“ stand together on the back porch, car lights on the wall behind them and stare off into the glare. Bang! Itâ€™s over, and we donâ€™t know any more about the fate of those in danger at the end than we did at the beginning.
What happened was that I felt kind of manipulated after it was over. There wasnâ€™t any real reason to leave the audience hanging. Itâ€™s like when you were a kid and some adult told you a ghost story before bedtime. If there was no ending to the story, if the ghost didnâ€™t get his due, the odds were that youâ€™d toss and turn all night.
I have always thought that the uncertain or unresolved ending to a play is a theatrical gimmick that does nothing to endear me to whatever has come before. Donâ€™t do it simply so weâ€™ll talk with other people about how we wonder how it ended.
Having said that, "October" is well worth the experience because of the three outstanding acting performances and the direction of C. Michael Wright. Wright is a wonderful actor himself, and he is clearly what they call an actorâ€™s director. He helped create some memorable performances.
Raeleen McMillion gives a towering performance as Martha. Her conflicted emotions are starkly acute, and for all her bluster and sunshine, she has sharp edges and elbows you better remain clear of. There is a huge sense of humanity in this woman who wants to care for her brood but isnâ€™t afraid to be tough when it is required.
As Houston, Ken T. Williams is often the object of Marthaâ€™s toughness and direction. Although he is clearly a man, she treats him as a little boy, and he seems more than happy to fulfill her modest expectations.
Williams has now turned in two remarkable performances in a row as the titular character in Renaissance's "The Understudy" and here as Houston. He has shown a remarkable ability to create characters of layer and depth, and has developed into a consistent joy to watch.
April Paul gives us an Anne full of the roaring hormones you would expect from a woman who is seven months pregnant and is wondering if the father of that child is alive or dead.
What I missed most about this story was a reason to hope or a reason to care about these characters. All I saw, really, were their weaknesses. I was never allowed to see their strengths and that, more than anything, gave me the wistful feeling I had when I walked out of the theater.
For more information about "October, Before I Was Born," visit the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's website.
No Talkbacks for this article.
Post your comment/review now
Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.
Recent Articles & Blogs by Dave Begel
Published May 27, 2016
There is something about live theater that provides room for the little things in life, things that don't come with trumpets but with little bells, things that don't move mountains but may move the soul.
Published May 26, 2016
Charlie Sykes has long been a star of conservative politics, having built a kind of cottage industry mixing radio, television, books and his own peculiar brand of journalism. He may now be part of "The Mainstream Media."
Published May 26, 2016
A kind of social media pandemonium got underway Wednesday when Viswa Subbaraman announced he was resigning as the artistic director at Skylight Music Theatre. The board will take its time, however, finding a replacement.
Published May 25, 2016
No matter how it gets spun, Milwaukee's performing arts community took a severe hit Wednesday when Viswa Subbaraman announced he was leaving his post as artistic director of the Skylight Music Theatre.
Published May 24, 2016
The Wisconsin theater season generally begins in early summer when The American Players Theatre opens in Spring Green, shortly after the previous Milwaukee season comes to an end in spring. The 2015-16 season is now over and it's time for Dave Begel's annual list of the best plays of the season.
Published May 21, 2016
Skylight's production of Gilbert and Sullivan's "The Pirates of Penzance" delivered a rollicking and laugh-filled first act. As for the second act? Unfortunately, that's where the Skylight's season finale ran out of gas.
Published May 20, 2016
There are rare moments in the life of an arts organization when something happens that is a stamp of its style and the core belief that makes it who it is. The Milwaukee Ballet unfurled a moment just like that Thursday night with "Alice (in wonderland)."
Published May 19, 2016
Demond Means, a skilled and accomplished educator, is a guy who deserves some sympathy for being caught between a rock and a hard place as he tries to move the rock. He faces tough opponents in reform efforts.
Published May 18, 2016
Somebody somewhere needs to sit me down in a corner and explain why the City of Milwaukee needs a new "People's flag" to replace the one we've had for over 60 years.
Published May 17, 2016
Septime Webre is about to step down after 17 years as artistic director of the prestigious Washington Ballet. Before then, however, he is in Milwaukee to direct his "Alice (in wonderland)" with the Milwaukee Ballet.