ITW's "Pick of the Crop" lives up to its name
Three novice local playwrights have taken the sage advice, "Write what you know," and the resulting semi-autobiographical plays make up the latest program from the Island Theatre Workshop. The trio of one-act works comprise a show titled "Pick of the Crop - Original Plays by Island Authors," that opened last weekend at the Katharine Cornell Theatre, and will play again this Friday and Saturday night.
Peter Palches completed his short play, "Still Here," under the tutelage of instructor Brian Ditchfield and with input from the half dozen or so students in the playwriting class he took this past winter at ACE MV (Adult and Community Education on Martha's Vineyard).
The single scene drama is based on three interwoven stories from the author's father's life. The action takes place in a working class neighborhood whose dwindling Lithuanian population is facing imminent gentrification. A middle-aged man, Sam (George Ricci in a nicely low-key performance), has returned to the neighborhood for a nostalgic afternoon visit. He encounters a former friend of the family, an older woman named Maria, and the two reminisce over lunch.
Sam left the neighborhood behind long ago, along with his identity as the son of working class parents. He's gone on to both a successful career and complete assimilation into American society. However, a yearning of some sort has inspired the visit. As Maria notes knowingly, "Your blood brought you back."
Niki Patton does a wonderful job as the proud and resilient Maria, who displays a knack for unobtrusive psychoanalysis. Sam finds himself entirely comfortable opening up to the engaging older woman and she eventually has him questioning his accomplishments, his priorities, and even his memories.
Playwright John Ortman, also among Mr. Ditchfield's ACE MV students, came into the class with the seed of an idea for a story about his family. The result, "Time for Roll Call", performed as a reading, is the story of a large working class family headed by a hardened WWII vet. Mr. Ortman notes, "The play has a strong autobiographical base - the trunk of the tree, and the branches are fiction."
The character of Daddy, played by Ted Leslie, is an angry, prejudiced man who rules his family with an iron fist. The five children live in fear of displeasing Daddy, while mother Florence (Linda Berg) tries to play peacekeeper and spends her time tiptoeing around her explosive husband. The tension is well established in the first few scenes, building up to a violent climax during a family trip to the Jersey Shore.
The conflict between the two oldest sons, the bullying tough guy Harry and the bookish Tommy, provides a subplot that explores the true meaning of heroism. Both young actors (Taylor McNeely and Eli Dagostino, respectively) are superb in their roles.
The dynamic, multiple=scene play appears a bit ambitious for a one-act. With so many characters (11 in all), a good deal of action, and some major turnarounds in some of the principal characters, it would be helpful to see the work as a full-length, fully wrought play.
Mr. Ortman, who sings in his role as the narrator, says that he may take the playwriting class again if it's offered. He notes that the play evolved over the course of the five-week class, and that he was helped by hearing his classmates read the roles. He notes that he would like someday to see a fully staged production and perhaps he will fill the story out into a full-length piece and give us a chance to explore the many characters a bit more.
The standout of the evening was Taffy McCarthy's one-woman show "Bird of Feathers." The play is not so much autobiographical as it is informed by the playwright's life experiences. "I'm familiar with the themes of empty nest and moving on and letting go," she says.
In the play, the normally poised and polished Ms. McCarthy transforms herself into Birdie, a frumpy housewife. Sporting a sloppy lounging outfit and a disheveled blonde wig, and speaking with a flawless Southern twang, she's a bundle of nervous energy, turning tales of everyday errands into high drama.
Stories of Birdie's escapades are accompanied by some very funny pantomime, and Ms. McCarthy does a pitch perfect job of mimicking the other characters in Birdie's world, including her ungrateful daughter, unsympathetic husband, and wisecracking best friend.
Ms. McCarthy proves herself a brilliant comedienne, with impeccable timing and the energy to sustain an audience through a half-hour monologue. However, the comedy and the vitality of the character cannot mask the underlying desperation of a woman dealing with loneliness and too much time on her hands.
Stephanie Burke, president of the ITW's board of directors, explains that, although Pick of the Crop was a first-time event, it's been an idea that's been on their radar for some time. She notes that they hope to make a program of work by local playwrights an annual fall event, and possibly provide classes and other means to help develop work by newcomers.
Gwyn McAllister is a frequent contributor to The Times.
"Pick of the Crop," Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 15-17, 8 pm, Katharine Cornell Theatre, Vineyard Haven. Island Theatre Workshop presents original plays by Taffy McCarthy, John Ortman, and Peter Palches. 508-693-2769.