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Mother-daughter memories clash in terrifically funny Well, while Emmett Till is essential history



Enter the alternative reality of Lisa Kron's Well, Tennessee Women's Theater Project's first production of 2009. Playwright Kron herself played the leading role in the New York production of her thoughtful, autobiographical memory play, leaving any actress who follows in her footsteps the singular task of channeling the author's own heartfelt involvement with the subject matter.

Fortunately, Lisa Dunaway rises to that challenge with a deft and lively performance as monologuist Lisa Kron, who recalls her younger years coping with her larger-than-life activist mother, with whom she lived in an integrated Lansing, Mich., neighborhood. In what she repeatedly terms a "theatrical exploration," the middle-aged Lisa now spills her recollections, attempting to reach some kind of catharsis.

The catch here is that dear old mom, played crustily by Carole Shaw, is seated nearby in the family easy chair, interrupting her daughter's version of events with motherly corrections and rebuttals. Furthermore, a versatile supporting cast of four—Shane Bridges, Shonka Dukureh, Bakari King and Nashville newcomer Stacia McKee—plays key ongoing roles in reenacting Lisa's life, occasionally conspiring to clarify or deny her perception of reality. (That includes taking mom's side, much to Lisa's consternation.)

Dunaway charms, especially when she retreats from Amber Wallace's homey set to a spotlight downstage right. There, she escapes the reconstructed flashbacks gone awry and communicates her sincere feelings to the audience, in particular about her notions of wellness, the interaction of mind with body, her commitment to her own deeply remembered sensibilities—and not least of all the mixed blessing that was her mother. 

Kron's episodic scenes are cleverly constructed, with a seamless through-line, interesting characterizations across the board and a fine sense of open dialogue on the human issues at hand. Best of all, her play is often terrifically funny. Maryanna Clarke's staging reinforces the consistently good writing, and her players—bolstered by the graceful, likable Dunaway—are always at one as an ensemble.

Remembering Emmett Till
Sista Style Productions' mounting of The Face of Emmett Till may be a must-see for audiences interested in honoring Black History Month, but it would stand as a strongly acted and powerful piece at any time of the year. David Barr III's script does both dramatic showing and historical telling in relating the story of the horrendous 1955 murder of Till, a 14-year-old African American youth butchered for allegedly whistling at a white woman in Jim Crow Mississippi. 

The tale spins out mainly from the viewpoint of Emmett's mother, as played by Mary McCallum in one of her more determinedly emotional performances. While enduring overwhelming grief, she courageously fights the battle to bring her son's slayers to justice. That even includes bucking the recalcitrant ways of the NAACP, from whom she seeks support.

The narrative moves from Chicago to the Deep South and back again, from Emmett's killing and funeral through the stacked-deck trial to its sorry conclusion. Events are portrayed in a giant-sized flashback—with appearances by noted political figures of the era, including segregationist Sen. James Eastland, civil rights activist Roy Wilkins and progressive attorney Morris Dees—all framed by opening and closing scenes in which Emmett's mother nervously awaits a speaking-engagement appearance.

Director Jacqueline Springfield efficiently propels forward both the many scenes and her cast of 12, including youngster Cameron Pate, who portrays the title character with precocious poise and poignance. Also notable are Brian Matney, Marc Mazzone and especially Jorge Moran, who bring the necessary honesty to their difficult roles representing bigoted and/or frighteningly violent white men—rising up as the ghosts of a recent American past that haunts us still. The play is presented through March 8 at the Darkhorse Theater. 

Cheesy ball had by all
Actors Bridge Ensemble's production of the Nashville premiere of The Book of Liz closed on March 1 at Belmont's Black Box Theater. Co-authored by the brother-sister team of David and Amy Sedaris, the script is structured akin to David's popular short stories but is infused with Amy's penchant for goofy characters, strange names and bizarro cultural satire. Rachel Agee's star turn as put-upon Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, chief cheese-ball whiz in a vaguely Mennonite sect called the Squeamish, was generally well-done, working the zany humor while also connecting empathetically with Liz's sojourn into the world beyond her self-contained religious community.

Agee further scored with her portrayal of silent, robotlike, weird Brother Hesikiah. Dave Shetler, Rebekah Durham and Andrea Ridge also distinguished themselves, each actor taking on at least four wildly diverse comic roles, readily slipping in and out of designer Dusty Shaffer's eccentric costumes. Director Jessika Malone delivered a workmanlike staging, and while the acknowledged Sedaris wit was well in evidence, the show evoked consistent titters more than huge laughs. But if there's any comedy truism, it's that cheese balls are always good for a laugh. 


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