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.
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