By Perry Tannenbaum
Go ahead: Key in 307 Armour St. on your GPS and head up I-77 to Exit 30. That's where Davidson Community Players have found a cozy, out-of-the-way location for their first permanent home. But first, make sure to contact the theater for reservations. Sellouts are commonplace at this welcoming converted church -- and in the case of their inaugural production, Studs Terkel's Working, sellouts are quite justified.
You need 20 people portraying 30+ characters to make this sprawling musical adaptation click, but this isn't the first minor miracle director Melissa Ohlman-Roberge has pulled off over the years at DCP. With Terkel passing away less than a week before this premiere -- and the problems he chronicled still so pertinent -- this may be the timeliest of O-R's wonders.
Terkel, a great interviewer and raconteur, set out to paint a broad tapestry showing people's attitudes toward their occupations. We meet an ironworker, a CEO, a parking lot attendant, a female exec (a newsgirl in her youth), a school teacher, a supermarket checker, a stone mason, a fireman, a hooker, a UPS delivery man, a waitress, a receptionist, a trucker, a cleaning woman, a mill worker, a housewife, a Mexican immigrant and even a social service volunteer.
A colorful gallery of portraits, yet I found two unifying quotes that resonated with me across this odyssey and during the long drive home. "What you do is what you are." Yes, that sounds like my America, the one that estimates your human value by your title and salary. More to the point: "Jobs are not big enough for people" -- a seven-word indictment of modernity that even a New Deal for health care won't cure.
The frustration, determination and dignity of all these people shines through Terkel's humanizing lens, augmented by a DCP cast consistently breathing life into this broad American cavalcade. Standouts in this impressive ensemble include Rachel Jeffreys as the exec and the waitress, Alan England as the CEO and the stone mason, Casey Roberge as the stone mason's granddaughter and the social service worker, Larry Ligo as the leering UPS guy, Amelia Pagan as the supermarket bagger, Lori Tate as the millworker, Brian McCarthy as the ironworker, Kevin Roberge as the fireman, Nickeya Adams as the cleaning lady, and Anne Lambert -- what range! -- as the ordinary housewife.
Nearly as many songwriters contributed to this musical melting pot, including Stephen Schwartz, Susan Birkenhead and James Taylor.
For all of its corrosive cynicism toward love, marriage, modernity, and humankind, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is Tennessee Williams' funniest, most affirmative play -- about as close as he comes to comedy in a major work. It bears the fullest bloom of the playwright's artistry in its characterizations and in its plot construction.
CPCC Theatre's current production at Pease Auditorium boasts an admirably expansive and transparent set from James Duke, pitch-perfect costuming from Heidi O'Hare -- even contriving to make the notorious "no-neck monsters" look their parts -- and an able, energetic cast assembled by director Tom Hollis.
We get so wrapped up in Big Daddy's health and the machinations of his scheming family's politics that we inevitably miss the fact that the answer to Maggie the Cat's problems is staring her -- and us -- in the face all evening long. Maggie has gone to a gynecologist to confirm her fertility, but considerable obstacles remain in her path if she's to inherit a lioness's share of the family fortune with her husband Brick.
First, Big Daddy is dying, so there's little time to birth an heir. Second, there's the opposition of Brick's elder brother Gooper, alias Brother Boy, and his conniving, eavesdropping, gossiping wife Mae, alias Sister Woman, who have already hatched four or five grandchildren, with another on the assembly line. Big D favors his charismatic Brick over Gooper, but can't quite bring himself to hand over his plantation to the family's prize thoroughbred.
Yes, the biggest obstacle in Maggie's path is Brick. Partly in consequence of Maggie's over-possessive love, Brick has cast himself adrift from his career and become a devoted alcoholic. With even more determination, he has rejected Maggie and her considerable allure.
Tom Scott can thunder like nobody else in Charlotte -- and few anywhere -- so he's a perfect fit for Big Daddy's mammoth vulgarity, lust for life, and rage. You'll also find Scott nicely covers Big D's vulnerabilities and paternal love. After numerous supporting stints earlier this year, Caroline Avery Granger emerges as a Maggie to be reckoned with, one truly seductive bundle of vanity, selfishness and charm with a drive that matches her father-in-law's. In her second pass at the role, Gloria King continues her perfect mastery of Big Mama, the warm stressed-out matriarch who adores and disgusts Big Daddy.
Our only major disappointment is with Josh Looney as Brick. Big Daddy's fave is actually a descendent of the Lost Generation protagonists invented by Hemingway and Fitzgerald: created strong but broken or crippled by a heartless, hopeless era. George in Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a closer brother to Brick than Gooper.
Looney's looks make him a natural for Brick and his ilk, so he needs to learn how to balance Brick's strengths -- his redeemability, if you will -- against his apparent weaknesses. This Brick staggers around in a sloshy haze, hardly ever steeled up with the sharp edge of cynicism. Looney needs to equip himself with a resentful misunderstanding of Maggie, his past, his family and the universe that can be untangled or broken down.
Everything else functions smoothly, right down to careworn Corlis Hayes as housemaid Sookie. The kiddies are appropriately boisterous and rambunctious, while Jerilyn McDonald and David Cruse are perfectly loathsome as Mae and Gooper.
It's been 10 years since Charlotte Repertory Theatre presented The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Booth Playhouse, so its current reprise at Theatre Charlotte should be welcomed by those who remember Alfred Uhry's comedy fondly. Rest assured, there is no precipitous falloff in production quality. With fully Equity theater moribund in the Queen City, actors who should be paid are regrettably available to lend a hand to this community effort.
In fact, one of the principles involved in the Rep production is on board. Tim Ross, who portrayed Brooklyn-born Joe Farkas for Rep, now moves over to the director's chair, perfectly positioned to grab a second Ballyhoo paycheck. In Michael Sharpe, Ross doesn't find an actor who equals his own 1998 aptitude for the Yankee and Jewish aspects of Farkas, but Sharpe does create some delicious chemistry with Paula Schmitt, who portrays Sunny Freitag, the Southern Jewish princess of his dreams.
Other members of the Freitag household -- a Jewish family in Uhry's Atlanta so assimilated they know more about Christmas than Passover -- are equally apt in their roles. Kathleen Taylor has a breakout performance as Lala, Sunny's dumber, vainer, clunkier cousin, nicely paired with Joel Sumner as Peachy Weil, a snooty suitor with flaming red hair and a memorably horsey laugh.
Lala, kicked out of college and a breath away from spinsterhood if nobody escorts her to Atlanta's exclusively Jewish Ballyhoo ball, consumes everyone's attention. Donna Scott, as Lala's desperate mother Boo, doesn't quite balance what's admirable and despicable about her, but she's close. Mitzi Corrigan is nearly goofy enough as Sunny's mother Reba, a perfect model of laissez-faire parenthood blissfully unaware of her own wisdom. Joe Copley doesn't reach all the comical bite of Adolph Freitag's animus as the long-suffering man of the house, but Copley is avuncular to the bone.
Ross makes one serious mistake at the very end of the night, leaving Sunny and Joe on their train somewhere in Baltimore. They should be down in Atlanta at the Freitags' shabbos dinner, where Joe has ultimately scored his most significant conquest.