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I grew up, like S.M. Shephard-Massat, in Georgia, but it don’t matter where you from: You know Frieda Ashby. She’s the neighbor your mama told you to keep on the right side of, the “people” in “Stopthatpeoplegon’thinkIain’traisedyouright,” the churchgoin’, hat-wearin’, bead-readin’ busybody who underneath all that meddling had more sense than any fool on the block. “Tha’s one woman know e’rybody’s bi’niss,” somebody says in Shephard-Massat’s rich rough draft of a new play, and it’s a line chock-full of weary, wary affection, an acknowledgment that if Frieda’s tough to live with, she’s damn near impossible to live without.
The show is Starving, and as staged by Seret Scott in its premiere production at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, it’s a sort of thinking person’s soap opera, a tangle of stories sometimes left unfinished, but perceptive, ambitious, and passionately written. If it feels a little shapeless now and again, if the lushness of its language sometimes slows its easy pace to a thoroughgoing drawl, there’s undeniably some substance there for the shaping, and plenty of luxuriant language to prune.
The time is 1950—a new decade, the first flush of spring in that decade’s first year, with Easter and all that that suggests right around the corner—and the place where all this possibility is happening is Atlanta, in a neighborhood that’s emerging as ground zero for an upwardly mobile black middle class of Pullman porters and schoolteachers and car-service proprietors. The talk here is of unions and promotions and putting the rural past firmly to rest—which is why Lizan Mitchell’s thoroughly exercised Frieda, when the lights come up on Daniel Ettinger’s two-story apartment-house set, is fussin’ at Craig Wallace’s taciturn Archer Way: He’s fixin’ to put a couple of tomato plants in the ground out front of their building, never mind the perfectly good A&P down the block, and to Frieda’s mind that’s just way too damn country.
To Archer, though—and to his creator—home-grown vegetables represent more than a convenience or a cost-saver. “Food is a forward motion,” he’ll argue later on in the play, when the themes of direction and choosing, momentum and impetus have made themselves more clear, when he’s courted one of those schoolteachers (Dawn Ursula) in a kind of herbological rhapsody, and when one of those Pullman porters (J Paul Nicholas, who’s got more to say about Ursula’s Rosetta than a married man might oughta) has derided Archer’s sidewalk husbandry as “down-home,” a kind of “back-trackin’” on the way to respectability. A man, however urbane, who hasn’t entirely lost touch with the source of his food is a man with a firsthand experience of “a forward-movin’ spirit,” Archer insists. What constitutes forward motion, and at what point a man’s hungers become destructive, are just two of the questions Shephard-Massatt’s characters are confronting in Starving, and by the final curtain, Archer is allowed to make a kind of guarded peace with Frieda; it’s one of the play’s signal achievements that the careful balance they strike is reflected—no, refracted, as through a prism—in the play’s other relationships.
Those include the shadowed Eden of that porter’s marriage to sweet, naive Bettie (a radiant Jessica Frances Dukes), fresh off her parents’ Florida farm, along with the friendly-fire zone of Frieda’s household. The latter is peopled by her longtime husband, Felix (a laid-back, immensely likable Doug Brown), and visited regularly by his cousin Coolbroth (an amusingly no-account Michael Anthony Williams) and Coolbroth’s daughter Dolsiss (ethereal, excitable Bethany Butler), who’s got her own painful sense of possibilities—most of them, it turns out, lost beyond redemption.
Or are they? When one woman’s been shattered and another’s been sobered by the events Shephard-Massat sends their way, it’s Frieda’s brand of hardheaded, hard-won wisdom—in her own mouth and on the lips of another generation both—that sets the new ground rules for those who remain. And the play ends with a promise. A liar’s promise, to be sure, and a bastard’s, but still a promise capping a play set in springtime, in the first year of a new decade in a place on the cusp of becoming something new. Somehow, never mind the wreckage and the damage and the memories of hurt, Shephard-Massat makes that seem a hugely hopeful thing.
Upward mobility, and a gnawing hunger, and a woman’s struggle with a man who’s wronged her as he’s wronged others: All these are at issue in Oliver!, every bit as much as they are in Starving, and… Ah, hell. I’m not even gonna try it. Lionel Bart’s dowdy musical tacks on an exclamation point, fer chrissakes, to Dickens’ gritty up-from-the-workhouse story—“by far the most depressing of his books,” in the words of one of his literary defenders—and really, doesn’t that tell you most of what you need to know?
A first-rate Oliver! might manage some of the emotional heft of its source, or at least conjure a lively sense of life alongside the Victorian gutter, entertaining audiences with picturesque bustle and with the buoyancy of Bart’s best tunes—the cast at the London premiere, in 1960, took 23 curtain calls, and one suspects it wasn’t for the annealing truth in their morally outraged portrait of a society that would support the selling of an orphan. The Olney Theatre Center’s middling new production, though, has surprisingly little bustle—and no bounce to speak of, either. As for buoyancy, the songs are as ingratiating as ever—though I worry, now that Olney has put a musical on its recently inaugurated New Mainstage, that it’s gone the Round House route and built itself a swank new space that’s not so much a hot spot for tuners. Bits of Oliver! seem reasonably immediate, but at least from Row H, whole stretches of it might as well be taking place on another planet, and the curiously uneven miking and mixing don’t do much to help.
Nor does director Brad Watkins, who keeps hustling Nancy—you remember Nancy, the evening’s sentimental center and everybody’s favorite battered woman, who gets the big melody (“As Long as He Needs Me”) and helps save the urchin but loses her own life to the vile but sexy Bill Sikes—off the stage before her numbers are quite done. When Peggy Yates is one of the few genuinely confident presences on the stage, this would seem a bad choice.
Andrew Long’s Fagin is one of the show’s unalloyed pleasures, a relaxed and funny turn from an actor who seems to know he’s slumming (he’s a Shakespeare Theatre regular) and shrugs, as if to say, Hey, it’s makin’ my Christmas a little cozier. It also happens to be a pretty nicely sung performance: Long has a nice baritone (who knew?), and a little practice with Shakespeare’s speeches does marvelous things for a fellow’s breath control. James Kronzer’s set, apparently a nod in the direction of Sean Kenny’s widely celebrated original, suggests the busy scaffolds you find in a mushrooming city and the more menacing scaffolds you find outside its walls, too; it’s another success in an evening with too few.
There is one lovely moment, when everything suddenly works in concert and the magic that musicals make suddenly suffuses the air: “Who Will Buy?” gets a hopeful, fearful, plaintive reading here, lyrically sung by a sweet-voiced ensemble that includes Stephen Carter-Hicks, Monica Lijewski, Katherine E. Hill, Wendell Jordan, and Eleasha Gamble. And Oliver himself, of course—J. Bradley Bowers at Sunday’s matinee performance, impossibly towheaded and warmly lit in the first safe space he’s ever known, knowing it’s too good to last and praying nonetheless that it might. There: That’s the emotional heft of the original, if only for an instant.
Too bad it’s only for an instant.CP