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 July 26, 2016
Being an Uber driver in Milwaukee is a one-of-a-kind experience that lets Dave Begel meet some of the most interesting people, residents as well as visitors to the city. Find out where Begel took guests in the latest installment of Tales of the Road.
Published July 21, 2016
So the nightmare is true and Donald Trump actually may be president. The whole thing has made Dave Begel wonder about prominent conservatives in Wisconsin and whether they will support Trump. It turns out that they are split on the nomination.
Published July 19, 2016
Summer theater in Wisconsin usually means Spring Green or Door County. But there are several summer productions that look interesting and that range from the classical to the experimental, both indoors and under the stars of Milwaukee.
Published July 14, 2016
People say that America is more divided now than ever, but it was less than a lifetime ago when this country was torn apart by the quest for civil rights and the drive to end the war in Vietnam. Those times were full of violent demonstrations.
Published July 12, 2016
The Milwaukee Rep has announced a unique training program for teenage actors in the city, as part of the company's commitment to stimulating dialogue and creating engagement opportunities revolving around social issues facing the city.
Published July 8, 2016
They looked just like any other happy couple coming out of Summerfest when I picked them up at the staging area. But once they got into the car, the tension was obvious, and eventually, it boiled over.
Published July 5, 2016
All of the arts enable us to see things, especially in ourselves, we might otherwise miss. I have an idea, and it's something that could help brand Milwaukee better than any flag, slogan or video. Let's make Milwaukee the epicenter of the world for public art.
Published June 30, 2016
Now that the OSPP has exploded in mid-air like the Big Bang fireworks, the question is where do we go from here? The plan, which many saw as the right wing continuing to try and chip away at MPS, didn't have much of a chance of working.
Published June 30, 2016
Being an Uber driver in Milwaukee is a one-of-a-kind experience that lets Dave Begel meet some interesting people, residents and visitors to the city. Everybody has a story, and Tales of the Road will highlight some of those stories.
Published June 29, 2016
The city has agreed to cut a check for $968,331.75 after losing its lawsuit at trial and again in the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals after the initial verdict. The amount covers both the damage award and attorney fees.