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.
That’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 Milwaukee’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 Martha’s son and is seven months pregnant; and Houston, Martha’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 it’s nearly impossible for them to make or receive calls.
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 doesn’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 – hoping for a car to get Anne to the hospital – stand together on the back porch, car lights on the wall behind them and stare off into the glare. Bang! It’s over, and we don’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 wasn’t any real reason to leave the audience hanging. It’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 didn’t get his due, the odds were that you’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. Don’t do it simply so we’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 actor’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 isn’t afraid to be tough when it is required.
As Houston, Ken T. Williams is often the object of Martha’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 April 19, 2015
"The Pillowman" at Soulstice Theatre is a powerful play, full of gruesome tales of the abuse and murder of children. But behind all the shock is the enlightenment of how powerful and precious stories are to all of us.
Published April 18, 2015
The adaptation of the P. G. Wodehouse books about the stiff upper lip butler and his boss, Bertie Wooster, comes alive at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. It's a night filled with laughter and more laughter.
Published April 16, 2015
Nobody expected the Milwaukee Bucks to be in the playoffs this year, but they surprised the world by being the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. The Bucks open the playoffs against the Chicago Bulls Saturday night.
Published April 16, 2015
Sheriff David Clarke is the darling of the far right and he is a favorite of the Fox News Network. But amidst all the bluster there are some truths to be discovered when he talks about the epidemic of black violence in Milwaukee.
Published April 15, 2015
I recently began walking with a cane. And I had to park near the Milwaukee Public Market. I parked at one end of the block and had to drag myself all the way to the other end.
Published April 14, 2015
Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy are set to take over the big rivalry that the PGA Tour needs to keep interest up. The two are likely to become the next Tiger vs, Phil or the next Jack vs. Arnie. And it will be god for golf.
Published April 13, 2015
"Luchadora" is a production commissioned by First Stage, and it's an amazing production - full of joys and important messages to young women. Written by UWM professor Alvaro Saar Rios, it's a production that every young woman, aunt, uncle and parent should see.
Published April 12, 2015
A frothy comedy by Peter Schaffer is a delight at Renaissance Theaterworks. For two hours it's a great character study filled with laughs. But a contrived ending makes the evening end on a note that is far less funny.
Published April 11, 2015
The question of evolution versus creationism is at the heart of "Ten Questions to Ask Your Biology Teacher About Evolution" at Next Act. The most refreshing part of this production is that it values each side of the argument.
Published April 9, 2015
Just one string of shootings last weekend raises a whole bunch of questions about what's happening in the black community in Milwaukee. It also raises questions about what the rest of the city thinks about the violence.