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 Sept. 3, 2015
It's fairly easy to understand why there is a mad rush to put body cameras on every police officer who hits the streets in America, including Milwaukee.There have been several incidents around the country, primarily black victims and white cops, that have in large part been responsible for increased cries for police oversight.
Published Sept. 1, 2015
Bob McGinn and Jason Wilde are the two most knowledgable reporters ever to cover the Green Bay Packers. If you want to know about this team, read or listen to them and avoid the silver tongued radio heads.
Published Aug. 27, 2015
With Donald Trump monopolizing the airwaves with his amazing campaign, it's important to recognize that our very own governor is also in this race. It is also important to note that there are significant differences between these two candidates.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The 2015-16 theater season in Milwaukee is just underway and looking ahead there is promise of outstanding productions that will stimulate audiences to laugh, think and weep.It's an appropriate time to look back at the 2014-15 season that provided so much interesting theater. Milwaukee is fortunate to have so many theater companies, both old favorites and new and bold groups. We have a wealth of great theater that is abundant for a city our size.
Published Aug. 25, 2015
The injury to Jordy Nelson of the Green Bay Packers, as well as other injuries to players on other NFL teams in the last couple of weeks, is a blow to the teams as they approach the regular season.They also point to the continuing folly of having four preseason games, a relic of the past that serves no purpose other than to provide additional revenue to owners of teams in the most popular and highest revenue sport in the country.
Published Aug. 20, 2015
No less an authority than the United States Department of Justice has cracked open the door to allowing tribes, which are sovereign states, to grow marijuana on their reservations. Could this mean more revenue for Wisconsin tribes?
Published Aug. 16, 2015
Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Edward Albee has theory of evolution, if not about the existence of man, at least about the way one man lives and gets along with another. "Seascape," the third Pulitzer play Albee wrote, opened at American Players Theatre in Spring Green over the weekend and like his other great works, it looks at the evolution of relationships with an unerring eye and sensibility.
Published Aug. 15, 2015
There's this guy, see, and he lives in a hot apartment in Paris and he's got these three ladies, all of whom think he's going to marry them and they drop in and out of his place and he keeps track of all this dropping in and out by using the timetables of the airlines that the three ladies work for.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Scott Walker is in danger of dropping off the radar screen unless someone lights a fire under him and gives him an injection of passion. He can learn a lot from the world of the theater, things that might actually make him seem like someone who cares.
Published Aug. 14, 2015
Angela Iannone, one of the finest actors ever to grace a stage in Milwaukee, has been engaged in a love affair for the past six years with a man who died when he was only 59 years old.Not only that, but the man died in June of 1893. Edwin Booth was his name, the finest actor of his time, the brother of the man who killed Abraham Lincoln and the object of desire for Iannone who has crafted a series of play about this lover.