On Stage

On Stage

 

When do you know you’ve had enough of life?

If you ask NHL goalie Josh Harding you’ll get one answer. Despite being diagnosed with MS, Harding manages his condition and continues playing professional hockey.

Or you could ask Taylor Kasch, who drove a cab for a year in order to fund his Flying H theater group and its latest production, Marsha Norman’s ’Night, Mother.

In the center of Norman’s debate is Jessie Cates, a plain girl in an unnamed Midwestern town who has long suffered from epilepsy. Now that her medication has leveled off and the fog of her seizures has lifted, Jessie sees clearly the state her life is in. We catch the heroine of Norman’s quick-moving, emotionally stunning ’Night, Mother on the night she’s made her decision: enough’s enough.

Played with perfect matter-of-fact simplicity by Cynthia Killion, Jessie isn’t angry or bitter or lashing out at the world — or closer to home, her mother, Thelma. Jessie equates her experience to a ride on a bus. “It’s hot and bumpy and crowded and too noisy and more than anything you just want to get off, but the reason you don’t is because it’s another 50 blocks from where you’re going. As soon as I’ve had enough, it’s my stop. I’ve had enough.”

Now that Jessie has decided where she’s going she’s a whirlwind of activity. She busies herself with to-do lists that prepare her mother for all the small details of a post-Jessie life, from where her medications and favorite candies are stashed right down to where the plunger is kept.

And through it all, her mother, Thelma, is no ogre. Played with a delightful spunk and a cantankerous energy by Peggy Steketee, it would be difficult to fault Thelma’s Every-mother for the decisions she’s made to help her daughter. There are still moments of scorn, even shame that Thelma levels Jessie’s way, but her mother’s love never stops, right to the final scene.

Mama berates Jessie at one point for wanting to leave, to quit. “I like it here,” Thelma shouts, and vows that when it’s her time to leave they’ll have to drag her off kicking and screaming. Whether by theater demons or irony, on the afternoon of Flying H’s recent performance the lighting decided not to cooperate. In the spirit of Thelma Cates the cast overcame and adapted and performed the show under little more than a single intimate bulb — still more than enough for two excellent actresses and an undeniably riveting story.

The intimacy works in their favor. Sitting above the cast gives the audience a feeling of benevolence over the characters, and Bret McCoy’s set works particularly well with the space. His layout of the Cates’ homestead in a half-moon shape that encompasses kitchen, living room and implied attic gives one the impression of the small, condensed world that Jessie feels just isn’t enough for her, just as her affliction has limited her scope of the world. As the play takes place in 1983, one has to wonder what effect the Internet might have had on Jessie Cates’ limited reach in the world.

So when is enough enough? Perhaps it depends on who you ask. The cast of ’Night, Mother presents a very human and often funny play that doesn’t mind getting the debate started.


’Night, Mother through May 4 at the Flying H Group, 6368 Bristol Road, Ventura, www.flyinghgroup.com.

 

On Stage

On Stage

 

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s 2008 Tony award-winning musical In the Heights gets a lavish and energetic production by the Cabrillo Music Theatre in its regional premiere at the Civic Arts Plaza in Thousand Oaks. The musical, set in the barrios of uptown Manhattan, gives voice to a portion of the immigrant experience of America not often heard — the mostly Dominican American population of Washington Heights.

The show’s energy, largely driven by narrator and protagonist Usnavi de la Vega (Lano Medina), comes from its mixture of Latin and urban rhythms both new and old. Medina leads the company in sweeping and bright musical numbers, blending the rap, hip-hop, Latin dance music and Broadway orchestrations that make up the musical’s score. He quickly establishes himself as the evening’s hero. A rousing and eye-opening number underscores the desire for a better life than the one offered by the tenements, roll-up security screens and fire escapes that fill the set. As day turns to night and day again during the July 4 holiday, the barrio will be transformed and dreams reshaped.

Medina is a likable Usnavi. He plays an orphan longing for a return to his homeland, struggling with the reality of his urban existence and caring for the woman he calls “Abuela” (Tami Dahbura as Abuela Claudia). As he awkwardly pursues Vanessa (an eager Rachae Thomas), the barrio is thrust into chaos by the return of Nina Rosario (Ayme Olivo) from Stanford, impending financial disaster for Nina’s parents, Kevin and Camilla (dutifully played by Benjamin Perez and Celina Clarich Polanco, respectively), the relocation of the neighborhood salon, and a blackout that brings with it violence and threat of rampage.

Morgan Marcell’s tight, fast-paced direction of this excellent cast gives us a bustling and busy streetscape, even if her recreation of Andy Blankenbuehler’s award-winning choreography sometimes exceeds the capabilities of her dancers. The Piragua Guy (Jonathan Arana in a delightful turn) laments his attempts to sell his traditional shaved ice while Mister Softee plunders his customer base. Benny (an earnest and believable Frank Authello Andrus Jr.), the Rosarios’ longtime loyal employee, suddenly struggles with his affection for Nina and a changing work landscape. The local graffiti artist (José-Luis Lopez as an imposing but lovable Graffiti Pete) is both the bane of the neighborhood and an integral part of it.

But it is Robert Ramirez’s performance as Sonny that steals this show. From his first entrance as Usnavi’s seemingly lazy and eternally immature cousin, Ramirez infuses Sonny with a youthful innocence and easygoing silliness that belies his character’s loyal heart and selfless nature. Sonny’s redemption is the redemption of the entire neighborhood, a recommitment to himself and his extended family. Even as he searches for his loved ones during the pivotal blackout and the cast echoes the refrain “We are powerless,” Ramirez’s Sonny nearly bursts with the youth and idealism needed to hold together a changing landscape and the changing dreams of the next generation of Dominican Americans in the Heights, where “It’s a hundred in the shade, but with patience and faith, we remain unafraid.”


In the Heights, through April 6. Thousand Oaks Civic Arts Plaza. For more information, call 800-745-3000 or visit www.cabrillomusictheatre.com.

 

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