Saturday, March 30, 2019

Palm Beach Dramaworks Stages an Inspired Rendering of August Wilson’s ‘Fences’

It begins sweetly, the easy jousting of two old friends, Jim Bono and Troy Maxson, so innocently that the audience is quickly ushered into their lives.  Although these are two garbage men returning at the end of a work week in 1957 Pittsburgh, a bottle of gin to share, and are African-Americans, we identify with the universality of their banter.  Troy has dutifully brought his weekly pay to give to his wife, Rose, and enjoys spinning yarns to his appreciative listener, Bono.  So begins August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize winning Fences and Palm Beach Dramaworks’ production which steadily builds to a cathartic climax.

Palm Beach Dramaworks' Producing Artistic Director, Bill Hayes, also the Director of Fences, has undertaken to make this production a signature piece in his company’s long history of triumphs.  He picks PBD’s productions with a vision for their excellence and relevancy to our lives and then selects a cast to work with its talented technical crew. 

John Archie, Lester Purry
Here the cast are all accomplished actors dedicated to the works of August Wilson, among the greatest of American playwrights.  Many have played in several Wilson plays, often in the same role.  Although just beginning its run, Fences’ cast has already come together as a “family.”  Their performances soar, unforgettable, mining the heart of Wilson’s poetic dialogue and the African-American experience many of us can only imagine.  Here we get to viscerally walk the walk.  It is enlightening and heart-wrenching.

Hayes takes the play to the very edge of Wilson’s intent, wanting Troy’s vulnerabilities and his humanity to be on full display.  There is an element of “every-man” in the universality of the themes.  He underscores the many comedic aspects of Wilson’s first act, disarming the audience, leaving us all the more susceptible to the dramatic fire kindling beneath that will blaze into full fury.  Hayes saves his most emphatic directorial statement until the end with a touch of magical realism but throughout, the director’s vision coupled with his love of the play and cast is tangible and affecting.   

This is no easy task as the span of the play’s eight years is panoramic and emotionally consuming.  And its main character, Troy Maxson, is a conundrum of a character, full of tragic flaws and yet possessing traits of nobility along with a disarming honesty.  He is larger than life, an inherently good man who has been seriously damaged by his father, poverty, and the disadvantages of his race, and deterministically visits the sins of the father upon his sons.  In so doing he impacts the lives of all in his orbit.  And like many of us, he is wrestling with his own mortality, symbolized by his imaginary encounters with death, building a fence to metaphorically keep the grim reaper out.

Lester Purry, Karen Stephens

Making his PBD debut, Lester Purry’s portrayal of Troy Maxson is seismic and when he is on stage it’s as if all the oxygen is taken out of the room by his performance, his forceful voice reaching one’s very solar plexus.  He alternates between accepting his lot in life, assuming his responsibilities, and then helplessly allowing his subliminal rage of victimization to rise to the surface.  He is intransigent about his beliefs and can be a terrifying bully, particularly toward his son, Cory. 

It all starts with Troy’s own father who was a failed sharecropper, tantamount to being a “free slave.”  His father had one mandate for his son: work.  As Troy recalls, he had taken a 13 year old girl by a creek when he was supposed to be working.  His father finds him and begins to whip Troy with the reins from a mule.  He realizes that his father was chasing him “so he could have the gal for himself.”  They fight but in the end, his father beats the 14 year old Troy senseless.

Purry delivers Wilson’s words passionately to Bono and his son Lyons, allowing the full emotion and poetry of the author to settle upon the audience as this hideous act is at the core of the generational family dysfunctionality:

“When I woke up, I was laying right there by the creek, and Blue…this old dog we had…was licking my face. I thought I was blind. I couldn’t see nothing. Both my eyes were swollen shut. I layed there and cried….The only thing I knew was the time had come for me to leave my daddy’s house. And right there the world suddenly got big. And it was a long time before I could cut it down to where I could handle it.”

In the “cutting down” period he is incarcerated for 15 years, having unintentionally committed murder during a robbery, becomes a star baseball player in the Negro leagues afterwards, marries Rose, and becomes a garbage man in Pittsburgh.  When Troy says “you got to take the crookeds with the straights,” it is a baseball metaphor which has grown into how he now looks at the world and becomes his advice to his sons.  Yet there is always the resentment that he was denied the chance to play baseball in the major leagues, “born too early” to break the color line. 

As one of the best plays of American theatre, each character has real depth and development.  Troy’s wife, Rose, is played by PBD veteran Karen Stephens.  This part was Stephens’ dream role.

She displays her comically loving moments with a heartfelt admiration of Troy, and even when he humiliates her, she accepts her situation.  From Wilson’s stage notes, “She recognizes Troy’s spirit as a fine and illuminating one and she either ignores or forgives his faults, only some of which she recognizes.”

Her performance intensifies when Troy confesses that he’s been having an affair.  In fact he’s going to be a father.  He rationalizes that this relationship is separate from his love for Rose (implying that he’s staying with Rose), saying this other woman makes him feel special, and that for 18 years (with Rose) he feels like he’s “ been standing in the same place.”

Karen Stephens, Lester Purry
Stephens now agonizingly tells her version of the truth: “….I’ve been standing with you! I’ve been right here with you Troy. I got a life too. I gave 18 years of my life to stand in the same spot with you. Don’t you think I ever wanted other things? Don’t you think I had dreams and hopes? What about my life? What about me…. But I held onto you Troy. I held you tighter. You was my husband. I owe you everything I had. Every part of me I could find to give you. And upstairs in that room with the darkness falling in on me… I gave everything I had to try to erase the doubt that you wasn’t the finest man in the world. And where ever you was going… I wanted to be there with you. Cause you was my husband. Cause that’s the only way I was going to survive as your wife. You always talking about what you give… and what you don’t have to give. But you take too. You take… and don’t even know nobody’s giving!”

Those words, so achingly delivered by Stephens, illustrate the poet in the playwright, some repetition to drive home themes, the rhythm sublime.

Other than Rose, nearest to him is his sidekick, Bono, worshiping Troy, and serving as a sounding board and Troy’s conscience.  PBD’s veteran, John Archie, reprises his recent Florida Repertory Theatre role as Bono, the best friend who articulates the thematic heart of the play “some people build fences to keep people out and other people build fences to keep people in. Rose wants to hold on to all of you. She loves you. “

Archie wrings out all the emotion portraying Bono who, towards the end of the play, comes by one last time to give Troy a loving tip-of-the-hat to acknowledge that “[you] learned me.”  By this time, Troy is a very lonely man finding consolation in his gin.

Much of the play’s drama focuses on Troy’s relationship with his two sons.  Troy bestows his own peculiar kind of love on the one hand and his ever present wrath on the other.  Each is caught up in his own generational perspective, Troy’s formative years being so different than his sons.  His fatherly skills rise only to the point of wanting his sons to find “responsible work,” expecting they abandon their own dreams.  But in his heart he simply does not want them to turn out like he did.

Jayla Georges, Warren Jackson
Lyons is his older son from a previous relationship with a woman who left Troy while he was in prison.  Warren Jackson in his PBD debut plays his part with a benign, arms-length acceptance of his father.  There is some playful back and forth between Troy and Lyons, his son always borrowing some money from Troy, his father holding that over his head, admonishing him to get a real job, not as a part-time musician.  Jackson conveys the absent father theme, like a leitmotif saying “hey Pop why don’t you come on down to the grill and hear me play?”  He knows the answer will always be an excuse and Jackson’s expressions of regret are never lost on the audience. 

Troy and Rose’s biological son Cory is played by Jovon Jacobs, his PBD debut.  Jacobs just finished a highly praised engagement as Walter Lee in New City Players' A Raisin in the Sun.  He has an explosive relationship with his father, Jacobs showing his character’s developing strength of conviction, distain for, and then willingness finally to challenge his alpha male father.  His is another bravura performance, seething with heart hurt fury.
Lester Purry, Jovan Jacobs Photo by Alicia Donelan
Cory is the depository of all his father’s shattered dreams of sports glory, the generational violence, and Troy’s denial of Cory possibly playing football on a college sports scholarship.  No, Troy insists, he must find a trade to survive in a white man’s world, not accepting that times have changed.  He demands that Cory address him as “sir.”  They finally have a highly charged climactic confrontation:

“CORY:  You talking about what you did for me…what’d you ever give me?
TROY:  The feet and bones! The pumping heart, nigger! I give you more than anybody else is ever gonna give you.
CORY:  You ain’t never gave me nothing! You ain’t never done nothing but hold me back. Afraid I was gonna be better than you. I used to tremble every time you called my name. Every time I heard your footsteps in the house. Wondering all the time…what’s Papa gonna say if I do this?...What’s he gonna say if I do that?...What’s Papa gonna say if I turn on the radio?   And Mama, too…she tries…but she’s scared of you.”

Jacobs delivers these lines with intensity, his eyes flaring with hatred.  Cory knows a secret about his father, his using some of the money Troy’s brother, Gabriel, gets from the government.  Upon revealing this knowledge to his father, their verbal combat escalates into a terrifying physical brawl, stunningly choreographed by Lee Soroko.

Uncle Gabriel, Troy’s brother, is masterly played by Bryant Bentley, also his PBD debut although a veteran of several Wilson plays.  Having suffered a mentally disabling head injury in WW II, he is now convinced that he will play his broken Gabriel’s trumpet to open heaven’s gates one day.  Bentley plays up the role with a moral purity and a child-like innocence frequently foreshadowing the action.  

Karen Stephens, Bryant Bentley, Lester Purry
He loves Rose, usually bringing her a rose when he visits during his many wanderings through the streets.  Gabriel is a symbol of African-American pain, his screaming incantations at the end of the play a stake in the heart of American racism.  Bentley’s performance is stirring, cutting through to truths about how our society marginalizes people of color or those with disabilities.

There is still another half sibling in the play, Raynell.  We first see her as an innocent baby in Troy’s arms who Rose agrees to raise after Troy’s other woman dies in childbirth, and then as a delightful young girl at the play’s end.  Raynell’s youthful innocence has a pivotal role in helping Cory get past his blind anger as they plaintively share the refrains of a song their father used to sing:“…I had a dog his name was Blue/You know Blue was mighty true/You know Blue was a good old dog ….”  Ultimately there is forgiveness and hope for the future.  The part of Raynell is alternatingly played by two local elementary school actresses, Jayla Georges and Raegan Franklin.

Scenic design is by Michael Amico who has created a masterpiece set by capturing a slice of a downtrodden Pittsburgh neighborhood in the 1950s.  It rises on the PBD stage as a monument to the lives that are so accurately portrayed by Wilson.  There life stubbornly pushes forth from the ashes of the past.  Little patches of grass can be seen beneath the porch, and although two buildings next to the Maxson house are abandoned during most of the play, at the end there is life in them and it is spring.

Resident costume designer Brian O’Keefe nostalgically recreates the working class outfits of the economic and social station of the characters.  Rose, in particular, with her changing housedresses and church going costumes and glorious wig recall with perfection those outfits that live in the memory of the PBD audience.  His usual attention to detail enhances the realism of the play.

George Jackson’s lighting design bathes most of the production in full light with an occasional dimming spot at scenes’ end.  Dabbled lighting on the buildings show the shadows of trees.  His dramatic lighting at the conclusion enriches the dramatic effect envisioned by Director Hayes.

Sound design by David Thomas focuses on realistic street sounds stage right, a barking dog stage left, and swirling wind as the play transits six years at the end, enhanced by musical blues riffs between scenes as well as some traditional 1950s jazz.  (Wilson himself said the blues influenced his writing more than the work of other playwrights.)  Thomas’ sound and Jackson’s lighting effects join together to offer a consoling conclusion to this incredible piece of work.

James Danford
The importance of the Stage Manager, James Danford, cannot be overstated.  The accuracy of the endless details, from timing of costume changes to cues for the technical crew, to the placement and movement of props between scenes depend on the split second timing controlled by him.  We learned that Danford, at the end of this play’s run, will be retiring after nearly 40 years and 225 shows.  He will be missed, but it is fitting that as in the case with some major leaguers, his retirement comes at the pinnacle of his distinguished career.

With Fences Wilson has written an ode to his protagonist, befitting his literary beginnings as a poet.  The language is rich, rhythmical, and through the prism of the African-American experience.  PBD’s production of this great play ranks as one of its very best in many seasons of consistent achievements.

Cast Photos by Samantha Mighdoll

Friday, March 15, 2019

Two Different Musical Eras

We attended concerts two nights in a row.  As it turns out, they are like the bookends in my life.

I began my love of music in my early teens, the music of rock ‘n roll.  In college my musical allegiance morphed to classical.  As I play the piano, my adult years have been consumed by the Great American Songbook, and Jazz.  As I’ve matured I’ve come to appreciate some opera and in particular the potent instrument of the human voice.

Last night we revisited a performance of one of the world’s great tenors, Emmet Cahill, who returned to the Holy Name of Jesus Catholic Church in West Palm Beach.  Last year when I reviewed Cahill’s concert I had thought that his titanic talent warranted “a bigger boat” but nonetheless he returned to this same church and I understand why.  He began singing as a child in his home church in Ireland with his family and besides being a proud Irishman from the town of Mullingar; he is a religious young man as well.  Interestingly his love of these essential elements of his life transcends the ambition of many of his contemporaries.  Thus, he is content to allow his career to develop rather than rocketing overnight which perhaps it could if he pursued it at the expense of other values.  I have profound respect for him as a human being, not to mention as an astonishing artist.

He is also loyal to the Robert Sharon Chorale, the 84-voice-strong local community chorale which appears with him at the church, usually performing as an opening to Emmet’s solo appearance but sometimes backing him up as well.  His voice, though, needs no backup, other than his very talented accompanist, Seamus Brett, an extraordinarily gifted pianist.

The format of last night’s concert was similar to last year’s with perhaps more emphasis on liturgical and Irish pieces, but still a number of Broadway pieces so suitable for his voice such as “This is the Moment” and “Bring Him Home.”  Of course, with St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, his Irish upbringing impacted his musical selections this time around. 

Many of the pieces he sang were from his new CD Blessings of Music which includes “Be Thou My Vision, "Galway Bay," "The Gaelic Blessing," "Amazing Grace," "Ag Criost An Siol" (Christ is the Seed"), "Panis Angelicus,", "The Last Rose of Summer," "Moon River," "Danny Boy" and "How Great Thou Art."

As with last year, the audience was invited to shout out some pieces for him to sing and Seamus Brett would arrange them on the fly and Cahill performed them as if having rehearsed them for that particular concert.  I asked him to sing “Children will Listen” which he knew was from Sondheim, but said he’d better practice that.  And so I wait for Cahill to take that next step in his career.

I had selfishly asked his publicist about those plans and she said “Emmet has returned to his first musical love, opera, so don't be surprised if you hear him sing a bit of that at his concert. He's been training with a voice coach and fans will tell you Emmet's voice has more resonance now (and he sings in a higher key!). Yes, he'd love to do a Broadway musical one of these days. He told me that opera is a way to get into musical theater.”

And opera he sang, a superlative rendition of “O Sole Mio – which he also performed last year, but this time with a discernible intensity of voice and clarity which elicited another rousing standing ovation.

And as he said, he would not be let out of the auditorium on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day without performing “Danny Boy” which I managed to get a brief clip of and posted on my Twitter feed.

Emmet, you had us at the words “glad to be back” and we gladly look forward to your next appearance here and will watch your career with interest and amazement.  You are a unique talent, a captivating personality, and are truly blessed with a golden voice.

It’s hard to segue from Emmet to the dynamic denizens of Rock ‘N Roll, so apologies to Emmet’s fans, but welcome to those who remember the 50’s.  The night before seeing Emmet I experienced that other end of the “bookend” referred to at the beginning of this entry, and that is seeing One Night in Memphis at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.  This included the original cast members of the Broadway hit Million Dollar QuartetIn effect it's a concert rendition of the show which was about a legendary one night session in Memphis at the birth of Sun Records, a jam session featuring Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley. 

Carl Perkins was my first favorite as a kid, a cross over performer of rockabilly and country.  His big hits were the original rendition of “Blue Suede Shoes” (before Elvis’ version), “Honey Don’t,” “ Everybody’s Trying to be My Baby” and he was quickly followed by Jerry Lee Lewis  (“Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On,” “Great Balls of Fire”), Johnny Cash ("Folsom Prison Blues," "Ring of Fire") and of course the most famous of them all, Elvis Presley (“Don’t Be Cruel,” “All Shook Up”).  These are but a FEW of the songs performed by the four talented guys in the show. 

Normally, I don’t seek out performers who are imitators of famous entertainers, but will make an exception for this show as with every passing moment they seemed to BECOME the originals.  This particularly applied to the performer who played Elvis, as he was under the most scrutiny and at first your senses reject him as Elvis, but quickly he won over the audience.  I still have Elvis’ first 33-1/3 record he recorded for RCA.  My wife, Ann, actually saw him in person in 1956 at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta as an Elvis crazed teen!

John Mueller who played Carl Perkins was particularly effective as his guitar playing accompanied all the performers throughout the show.  Blair Carman as “the Killer” is a very talented pianist, convincing as Jerry Lee Lewis, even “tickling” the ivories with the heel of his shoe.  Shawn Barker plays the "Man in Black," Johnny Cash and in one song manages to sing a lick an octave below bass.  Truly, a crowd-pleaser.  Finally, Brandon Bennett as Elvis undergoes that transformation before our eyes.  And boy can he twist and shake!

Heartfelt thanks to all the many talented artists in this world who bring the joy of music into our lives.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Hagelstein Brothers Updated

It’s an interesting phenomenon writing a blog about all sorts of subjects, from personal to more universal subjects.  The personal entries have a tendency to give rise to the so called six degrees of separation and ultimately lead to contact with people who share that personal connection.  In particular, the historical information I’ve posted on my father’s photography business, Hagelstein Brothers, which was established by my great grandfather in 1866. has given rise to such correspondence, as well as Daguerreotypes from their studio when they were at 142 Bowery, New York City.

Naively, I had thought the business was one of the few originals in New York City.  I should have known, by then there were plenty, but few of those businesses lasted 118 years such as Hagelstein Brothers, Photographers.

Most recently I was contacted by Adam Woodward, a resident of the Bowery and an inveterate collector of all things Bowery, including some of the work of my forefathers, which he kindly forwarded to me and has allowed me to publish them here.  We speculate that the man with chemistry apparatus is my great grandfather himself, in his photography attire.

Adam in turn put me onto Jeremy Rowe who has been “researching photographic studios and operations in New York City from the birth of photography to ca 1880.”  Jeremy sent me a fascinating article on the NYC Daguerreian era which can be found at this link, following the prompts to Page 16.
Switching subjects, my blog has been relatively quiet, avoiding all things political, as I’ve been working on a book based on a selection of my blog articles and weaving a narrative around them in an attempt to understand the insanity we call today's politics, fiscal policy and cultural mores.  Appropriately, the book is entitled: Waiting for Someone to Explain It; The Rise of Contempt and the Decline of Sense.  More on that later but if posting in this space is less frequent than in the past that is a partial explanation.

Saturday, March 2, 2019

The Maltz Theatre Stages a Cutting-Edge Production of A Doll’s House Part II

Knock. Knock.  No answer.  Bang. Bang!  Hello, is anybody there?

You bet.

The family you left behind 15 years ago, Nora, slamming the door heard around the world.  They have it in for you.  And you in turn have to deal with some of the same issues, being an independent woman living in a man’s world and now new ones of your own making.  You didn’t think you could come back to ask for a favor without consequences, did you?

Nominated for eight Tony Awards, Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part II is the most produced play throughout the country this season.  Maltz Theatre’s production is a welcome addition to the bandwagon, and for South Florida Theatre goers in particular.

The play’s Director J. Barry Lewis commented, “While A Doll’s House was written nearly 140 years ago, it has a contemporary flair that speaks to today’s audiences. It is at its heart a very modern story that deals with selfishness, selflessness, growth and compromise. A Doll’s House, Part II is not a sequel to the original work, but more of a thought experiment of ‘what if.’ It presents a very sophisticated argument about what we owe to ourselves and to each other.”

J. Barry Lewis has taken this highly-charged intellectual tour de force and framed it in period dress but with a contemporary off kilter set.  The stage itself reflects that theme, the soaring white stucco walls, the minimalism of furniture, the stage floor sloping downwards into the audience’s lap and scene changes electrified by cringing amplification and visual identification.  The audience has entered Nora’s nightmare world.

Carol Halstead as Nora returns “home” on a self-serving mission.  She boasts to her former maid/confidant, Anne Marie, about becoming a highly successful author, with all the connections and money anyone could desire.  Nora writes books about women, their bondage in and the superfluous nature of marriage.
Carol Halstead and Mary Stout Photo by Zak Bennett

Halstead stalks about the stage, highly satisfied with herself as Nora, while explaining (or bragging about) the last 15 years to the maid who not only raised her as a child, but has raised Nora’s three children as well.  

Mary Stout, Photo by Zak Bennett
 Anne Marie is hilariously played by Mary Stout, who welcomes Nora on the one hand, but has her own reservoir of anger for everything she’s sacrificed for Nora and Torvald (including giving up her own child to keep that job), and Stout begins to wear that on her sleeve.  It is she who explosively uses the F word, quite a few times in fact, indicating that although this sequel is supposedly taking place in late 19th century Norway, the dialogue is strictly contemporary.  It is in perfect harmony with the surrealistic staging and the plays’ theme.

Nora has returned to her marital home for a simple request: to ask Torvald to properly file their divorce papers.  She had naturally assumed that had been done when she left as she went about her life as a single woman, signing contracts, having lovers (which Nora proudly enumerates), until one of her anti-marriage books led to a Judge’s wife leaving him. Once the Judge discovered her true identity, that in essence she was still a married woman and as such could be incarcerated for signing contracts, not to mention having affairs, he made demands that she refute her work or be exposed.  In essence, blackmail.  Thus, Nora has to become once more a supplicant to her husband.

Not so simple Anne Marie explains, “A lot of people thought you were dead.”  In effect, it’s awfully hard to get a divorce from a dead person and for Torvald to do that would expose him to the fact that the assumption which he never publicly denied, could even threaten his high level banking position.

Indeed, a complication. What would a drama be without one or in this case several which keeps the audience guessing?

Suddenly Torvald unexpectedly returns home for some papers.  Nora wasn’t prepared to make the request at that very moment, but after his stunned realization that the person standing before him is really Nora, he forces her to explain why she’s returned.  Torvald is played by Paul Carlin, with the confidence befitting his position as a highly respected member of society, as well as the very perplexed disheartened husband of a wife who inexplicably walked out on him 15 years ago, and with no explanation, no discussion.  Now she has some ‘splainin’ to do.

So the fencing match begins.  He refuses to grant her request for the reason Anne Marie has explained. 
Carol Halstead and Paul Carlin Photo by Zak Bennett

What is Nora to do?  The thought of agreeing to the Judge’s demands is an anathema to her.  In another tete-a-tete with Anne Marie, who is scheming for her own benefit, perhaps to retire or at least not lose her job, she suggests that Nora approach her daughter, Emmy, to intercede on her behalf in asking her father to grant the divorce.  Apparently Emmy has clout with Torvald.

No, Nora, says, I didn’t come to meet or involve Emmy but then her seemingly lack of alternatives make her relent.

Mikayla Bartholomew
Photo by Zak Bennett
Suddenly, there is a one-on-one scene with Emmy who we soon learn is a chip off the old block.  She could be Nora in her youth.  She’s in love and wants to marry! -- a young man from Torvald’s bank.  Emmy is deliciously played by Mikayla Bartholomew, who radiates that confident bloom of youth with the smarts of the mother she never really knew.  She is standoffish but civil, genuinely trying to help her mother as she has her OWN agenda.  This is yet another ingredient in the bubbling broth.  She knows that if Torvald is taken down at the bank, her impending marriage might be in jeopardy.

First, though, mother and daughter have to debate the merits of marriage (or demerits according to Nora).  Nora is confident that marriage is not only not needed in society but that in 20 or 30 years from now (the late 19th century being the “now”) all these issues of marriage and women’s inequality will have been settled.  Sure, Nora.  Emmy on the other hand, to her mother’s horror, “wants to be possessed.” 

So, there you have it, another stalemate, although Emmy gives Nora yet a third alternative.  Forge the death records at city hall (Emmy conveniently knows someone there, one of the many stretches of plot Lucas Hnath uses to move the story and the complications forward).  After you are “dead” disappear for a while as you did 15 years ago, going to your own fortress of solitude.  Nora had confessed that when she first left she lived alone “up north” until the “voices in her head” dissipated.

Eureka!  Saved by the bell, Torvald stumbles home, bloodied, holding a piece of paper which he reveals is the divorce.  He’s a good guy after all!  Why he is bloodied and the choice Nora now has to make I’ll leave for when you see this audacious play.  The author has us all guessing until the very end.

Suffice it to say, this production has it all, comedy, suspense, empathy, and some of the finest acting you’ll see this season.  In fact, what may make this play especially distinctive, besides the pedigree it attempts to follow, is how all four characters come across as likeable.  There is no one who you can call a hero or a villain.  They are all believable and engaging.

Of course the acting accolades have to go to Carol Halstead as Nora.  She’s on stage full time in this intermission-less fast paced production and Halstead IS the Nora we have imagined, beautiful and brash.  Mary Stout as the maid, Anne Marie, is the perfect comic foil, mesmerizing to watch on stage. Paul Carlin as Torvald personifies the man we’d expect for this part, knowing the hurt he harbors, while Carlin mightily tries to keep his dignity. His anguish in learning that one of Nora’s novels is about their very own marriage and how he doesn’t come out too well is affecting (although laughingly Nora had to “kill off” the heroine to make it acceptable – a bit of foreshadowing for one of her own alternatives).  Mikayla Bartholomew is self-assured as Emmy, passionate in her own beliefs, but always under careful control of her emotions, the perfect foil for the very arguments that Nora has lived and written, not hesitating to say to Nora “I’m better at life because you were gone.” Ouch.

J. Barry Lewis directs this parlor drama for the comedy and the messaging.  He moves his characters into interesting positions among the sparsely decorated stage to bring out both their character and the “debate.”  The play moves steadily, like the second hand of a clock, striking a strident note as scenes change, the characters we’re about to see in that scene briefly stenciled in lights on the back wall across the door.  And when I say “strident” I mean electrifying, like the dialogue.  Yet Lewis knows when his characters must pause to give the audience time to take in a look or a pained response of a character.

His technical crew, particularly lighting designer Kirk Bookman and sound designer Marty Mets play a significant role in those scene changes.  Scenic designer Anne Mundell has created the perfect space and feeling for this contemporary play based in the 19th century.  Costume designer Tracy Dorman and wig designer Gerard Kelly provide that touch of verisimilitude against the backdrop of the surrealistic set

A Doll’s House Part II is a must see at the Maltz Theatre.  It is also a reminder why live theatre is so, so, much better than the ubiquitous streamed entertainment to which we are now subjected.  This play and production is intellectually engrossing and comedic as well.