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“We need pepper. We need salt,” says an embittered woman not long into Tripping Through the Car House. So effectively moody is the poetically charged dialogue Regina Porter has given her characters, so highly theatricalized is the dreamy atmosphere she often manages to create, that in context this irritable dinner-table observation sounds almost like a curse.
Sad, then, that the premiere of this uneven but promising play serves the script so poorly.
“Folks are always looking for something bigger than them, something to help them forget their ordinary lives,” says another character, and indeed the stifling ordinariness of daily existence is what begets grief in Tripping. “Little things lead to big things; big things lead to cruel realities,” someone else observes; quashed ambitions, unfulfilled longings, and tangled, murky histories are the little things that threaten big trouble among the Myerses, a working-class family in what seems to be modern-day Savannah, Ga.
At 40, mother Dee (Jewell Robinson) is an ever-so-slightly faded flower in the Blanche DuBois mold, a would-be singer denied a career by unexpected maternity and denied her first love by a terrible accident; father Dale (Doug Brown) was once a promising race-car driver, but now he just tinkers endlessly with his vintage chariot, whose disassembled pieces lie strewn about the yard.
Elder daughter Beryl (long-limbed, lavishly theatrical Taunya L. Martin) is smart and oh-so-worldly, a 19-year-old live wire just dying to leave town with her new boyfriend Frazier (a smooth Jay Jones), an itinerant sax player with a bent for moody blues. At the center of it allat least ostensiblyis Nita (engaging Duke Ellington student Tamara Johnson), the younger daughter, boisterous and open-hearted and on the cusp of adolescence, perceptive and wise beyond her years.
Porter conjures these peoplethese marvelously human, impressively multifaceted characterswith an easy grace that’s simply astonishing in a playwright of her years (she’s not yet 30). She manages simultaneously to exploit and to puncture the Southern Gothic tradition of writers like Eudora Welty and Flannery O’Connor (and, of late, that Yankee interloper John Berendt); just after Dee lectures the road-weary Frazier about his tendency to romanticize Savannah’s bucolic charms while ignoring its ugly, impoverished underside, for instance, she stalks off to the kitchen for a chat with the spirit of Bizet’s Carmen (a rather too sultry Desiree Marie Velez), who emerges from the sink at regular intervals to stoke the embers of resentmentover the career sacrificed, the man lostthat Dee keeps banked in her heart.
Other characters have their own familiars to converse with: Nita pines for Clint Eastwood (a fine raspy caricature by Paul Takacs), who steps out of a movie poster every now and then to offer bits of taciturn Dirty Harry wisdom, while Dale does his best to resist the taunts of his dead brother Vic (assured Kevin Jiggetts), who was not only his racing partner but also his competition for Dee’s affections when they were young.
All of this is clever; the problem is that it’s essentially window-dressing. None of the ideas at the play’s heart is especially new, and Porter, confident as her writing is, doesn’t work any particularly remarkable dramatic changes on the old Arthur Miller/Tennessee Williams formulas she has resurrected here. What’s fresh is that these reliable ideas find eloquent expression in the lives of black characters who are neither noble vehicles for the playwright’s political ideology nor tragic victims of an oppressive society. The Myerses are simply ordinary peopleand so, in theater terms, they are quietly revolutionary.
As matters progress, each member of the Myers clan approaches a turning point. Dale may race again; Nita may be ready to spend less time in Eastwood’s world and more in her own; Beryl may decamp with Frazier; Dee, whose sexuality (like Carmen’s) seems somehow dangerous, may have other plans for the young musician. After intermission especially, Porter litters the stage with cue after cue for the armchair psychoanalysts in the audience. It’s all very promising, but in this production it doesn’t quite hold together.
That’s partly Porter’s fault. In the second act, narrative focus strays too far from Nita, whose story this starts out as; her parents and their troubles come to the fore, and when Nita begins to realize what’s going on, she simply shuts down, which further minimizes the character’s presence. It may be that there’s no way of fixing that, though, without radically re-centering the play. But the conclusion, two scenes in which all things come to what seem rather predictable resolutions, seems as tacked-on as only a hastily rewritten finale can.
But the chief problem here is director Thomas W. Jones II’s approach, which seems far too frantic and unfocused. There’s bustle in the script, yes, but only in places; long stretches of this text seem to cry out for a kind of repose the Woolly cast never achieves. Dialogue is often lost in the whirl, and some cadences get stepped on when they ought to be allowed to resonate. It’s as though Jones thought he could subdue Porter’s unruly ideas by throwing energy at them.
Basic physical cues are missed, too: “A little on the tight side, ain’t it?” says Nita as she zips up Beryl’s dress. “Supposed to be that way,” Beryl replies. Trouble is, the brown-and-white polka-dot number provided by costumer Reggie Ray isn’t tight at all, and it’s embarrassing to watch Johnson and Martin pretend they don’t notice. What was Jones thinking when he let that get by?
And there are casting choices that could have minimized the risk that audiences won’t buy the sexual tension that develops between Dee and Frazier. Porter specifies their ages as 40 and 24, respectively; Jewell Robinson is an expressive, often affecting actress, and she certainly performs creditably here, butand this is terribly crass, but unavoidableshe may be a little too old for the part. It would be more plausible, in fact, if Dee were cast a little younger than written and Frazier a good bit older. As a friend pointed out after we saw the show, a 24-year-old who trades the affections of a nubile 19-year-old for the charms of a needy 40-year-old is something of a puzzlement, but who’d be surprised if a world-weary 30-year-old touring musician finds a sexually frustrated 37-year-old woman more alluring than her virgin daughter?
Complaints aside, Tripping is more notable for its promise than for the problems it presents. It is, after all, a 10-character workrather ambitious for Woolly, and certainly ambitious for a playwright of such limited experience. That it works as well as it does is nothing short of miraculous. Now that she’s seen it staged, Porter doubtless has a clearer idea of what needs tweaking and what works best. We’ll hear more from her next year, when Woolly stages her Man, Woman, Dinosaur. And that, I think, is a good thing.CP