Theater Review

The power of words at The Gamm, Trinity Rep

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Our societies are constructs made up of many elements. Laws, institutions, ideals and, of course, the ideas and words of people. Words are the building blocks of our civilization; the societies we create can either rise to the heights or crumble, depending upon the soundness of these building blocks. A proclaimed truth can lift us to the heights, whispered lies can bring it all tumbling down.

Two excellent productions now playing explore how words can either elucidate or erode a society and demonstrate the dynamic power of truth and lies. Both The Gamm’s production of “The Children’s Hour” and Trinity Repertory’s “The Mountaintop” show us how powerful a word can be and how fragile these carefully constructed societies of ours are.

   We’ll start with lies. Lillian Hellman’s “The Children’s Hour” is an amazing 83 years old now, but the play doesn’t creak a bit and indeed remains as vital and vibrant as ever. In the span of time the play has made the journey from controversial to classic; in its day the Pulitzer Prize committee refused to consider the play for Best Drama and due to it’s subject matter productions were banned in Boston, Chicago and London. It was, at that time, illegal to mention homosexuality on the stage.

   Though we know this play’s premise and story by now, as Hellmann herself has said: “this is really not a play about lesbianism, but about a lie.” The society here is that microcosm for civilization, a private school.  Within that hermetic little world an angry girl spreads a rumor about two teachers, and that’s all it takes for the walls to start crumbling down.

   Director Rachel Walsh is adept at staging with an eye and a feel for impending menace; she keeps the action tight and taut throughout. This tone is set at the beginning, in one of the enter-act tableaus that the director has devised. We see a wordless scene of the girls assembling before class, there’s a shove, a push and silent reactions ranging from annoyance to indifference. Little more is needed here to inform us that what we are watching is a powder keg.`

   This undercurrent of casual cruelty is maintained throughout and is confined within the garish green walls of Patrick Lynch’s nifty set, every inch a drab institution and that underscores the universality of this little society, we might be in school, prison or a government office. Wherever, where we are is at a ‘crossroads of conscience.’

   This crossroads is populated by an excellent ensemble of actors. The young actors who play the girls of The Wright-Dobie School, a group that includes Barrington’s Haley Pine, are all to be congratulated for creating a seamless and highly effective cohesive unit. All are marvelous and Phoebe Brown, Kate Fitzgerald and Eveline Gomez stand out and hold their own and then some playing opposite The Gamm adult company in their respective supporting roles.

    Classical High School senior Grace Viveiros is astounding as Mary Tilford. As with another of literature’s rumor-mongers, Iago, her malignancy seems motiveless, although dark family secrets are hinted at, but she allows an utter and selfish dissatisfaction with all the world to imbue her every action onstage. Brava!

   Madeline Lambert delivers a measured and marvelous performance as Karen Wright. The consequences of every word and action here seems to weigh heavily upon her consciousness. Similarly, the excellent Karen Carpenter as Martha Dobie displays deep needs that are barely concealed under utter and earnest urgency.

   Casey-Seymour Kim is delightfully ditzy as Aunt Lily while also ably displaying the sort of hidden hurt and animosity that only an utter incompetent can feel and feed upon. Wendy Overly is, appropriately, all shoddy gentility as Amelia Tilford, a malleable grande dame with convictions of clay. Benjamin Grills, in a charming performance, seems to radiate with sheer decency and nonplussed confusion when confronted with these heady events.

  What makes a classic? Playwright Hellmann here explores not only the events, but the reverberations, the lingering consequences of these words and actions. The meditative and humanistic tone of her writing creates no melodramatic histrionics, a marvel considering when it was written, but allows the effects of causes to linger and then land upon us. The truth, like lies, is a slippery thing, and in a society turned upside down by lies, every word has a new meaning.

   That words have their effect long after they are uttered, that they can reverberate and shake the orb, for good as well as for ill, is magnificently bright to vibrant life in “The Mountaintop”, now playing at Trinity Rep. This is, after many decades of theatre-going, simply one of the most moving and powerful shows that I have ever witnessed and must not be missed.

  Katori Hall’s play, written in 2009, is a revelation, no other word can be used to describe it. The events depicted here afford us a glimpse into the last night of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s life, at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, as he prepares for his final speech. The next day he will be assassinated.

   Playwright Katori does the astounding thing here of demystifying a truly great man from his own legend, presenting Dr. King as a complex and vital man with a myriad of concerns and feelings as well as a decent man committed to the righteousness of his cause. He’s not prepared to be a martyr, he has too much left to accomplish.

   Preparing for the next day’s speech he is visited by hotel maid Camae and what follows is a Socratic dialogue about the issues of the day, no less urgent today, and a mediation on Civil Rights by two unique and disparate representatives of the African American population. And so much more. Not all events described here are as they initially appear, there are surprises that I cannot give away, but suffice it to say that a vision of the future, from the mountaintop, is afforded here.

   This backstage glance at the final hours of a great American depicts our society of the that time as being at ‘a crossroads of conscience’, a crossroads that we have perhaps never truly left and imparts, above all, the lesson needed in these dark days, that it takes great strength to love those who will too easily hate. Saints and sinners are both just human. Fear makes us human, in the end what we all need is some “sweet, radical love.”

   Joe Wilson, Jr. commands the stage as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He seems to embody all of this complex man in his entirety, a man of both decency and good humor, all of King’s fears, concerns, appetites, love and ideals seem to radiate from him. His face, as he beholds the vision of a future he brought into fruition, is rapt, comprised of equal measures of awe and pure joy.

   Mi Ellis is simply transcendent as Camae. She’s fiery. funny and strong-willed, but also seems imbued with a certain absolute honesty in the role.

   Director Kent Gash keeps a strong and nimble had on the proceedings, allowing the inherent thunderclaps in the words themselves to take primacy here. And the words are glorious and inspiring. We hear a bit of King’s last speech as he afforded his vision from the mountaintop, and it is always, it seems, that those self-evident truths of ours are the ones that need relating and proclaiming. And though we are left at these crossroads, we are also left with much needed hope.

   This is an inspiring and wonderful play, but if you can, both plays should be seen in conjunction with the other, all the better to understand how words can shape, or demolish, a society. Furtive lies needs must be whispered in darkness and hearsay innuendo can be repeated like a drumbeat or the electronic droppings of tweets. Truth, however, is fearless, and the righteous of sweet, radical love is unafraid to be proclaimed from the mountaintop.

“The Children’s Hour” at The Gamm Theatre, Pawtucket
“The Mountaintop” at Trinity Repertory Company, Providence
See listings at eastbayri.com for details.`

Trinity Rep, Gamm

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