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All Things Entertaining and Cultural

My General Tubman — Arden Theatre; A Woman of No Importance — Walnut Street Theatre

MY GENERAL TUBMAN — Arden Theatre, 40 N. 2nd Street, Philadelphia, 215-922-1122, www.ardentheatre.org, through March 1 — “My General Tubman,” is ambitious in its attempt to tie 19th century slavery to 21st century mass incarceration, its thesis that leadership makes a difference, and its attempt to show how a united movement might be the most efficient way to address an ill, but while it makes salient points, it does so it a pat, self-satisfied way that doesn’t lead to drama, strong empathy, or a call to action. Things happen so neatly in Lorene Cary’s play, there’s no suspense or worry for characters. There’s no concern about them, either. Even bona fide heroes, such as Underground Railroad champion Harriet Tubman and militant abolitionist John Brown, come off more as spokespeople for a point of view than valiant individuals dedicated to freedom for themselves in others. Cary has clever ideas, but they never coalesce into a piece that involves or engrosses. You see that the all-powerful corrections officer is meant to stand for the slave owner whose word was law and who, like the prison guard, thinks of all in his charge as property to do as bidden, but the parallel to slavery does not register as being exact or insidious enough. Because, on any level, it isn’t. A prisoner having visions of Harriet Tubman, visions that materialize and are shared by others, including a fellow inmate and the fatuous c.o., comes off more as a gimmick, a cool literary conceit, rather than as a profound event that will inspire and bring about favorable consequences. Time-switching between the 19th and 21st century also never gets past the “here’s a thought” stage. Nothing Cary nor director James Ijames devises has much impact. “My General Tubman” is a play with a lot of affect but little to no effect. It presents ideas and concepts, but it doesn’t make them compelling or immediate. The play delays making a point until it has no point. The men in jail never come across as cognates for slaves. Their willingness to follow Tubman to the 19th century and fight alongside her in the Civil War makes sense. Maybe with modern sensibility, they can angle for a more logical Reconstruction or warn that repercussions from the battle to preserve national unity will linger nearly 200 years if careful measure are not taken, but you don’t see that as one of Cary’s points. “My General Tubman’s” point of view is the struggle begins in the slave-holding American South, and there’s benefit in time-travelling to the past and taking arms at the first instance, participating in history, than lingering in a 21st century jail discussing rights and rehashing history. I kept rooting for “My General Tubman” to find firmer or more gripping dramatic footing — I’ve met and like Lorene Cary, and I think her play’s heart is in the right place — but it kept sticking in the realm of the comfortable and convenient, never edging to the controversial or expressing anything that wouldn’t get basic or tacit agreement from its auditors. In considering what it says about two situations in two centuries, Cary may be more successful at showing the idiocy of our current prison system than she is at bringing home the importance of Harriet Tubman or John Brown or making us feel anything new about the Civil War. Ijames’s production is as mechanical as the play. There’s little he can do to make “My General Tubman” deeper or more poignant. He is left with trying to create illusions and magic that don’t materialize. Ijames’s cast helps. Danielle Lenée and Brandon Pierce are two of the more exciting young actors in Philadelphia. Lenée brings dimension to Tubman and comes to the closest to making moments of “My General Tubman” urgent when she gives solace and a mission to a young prisoner. Pierce’s character is not full enough to engender empathy or make any care that he’s in jail, no matter the responsibilities he has to protect a young sibling from a predatory guardian, but Pierce plays him with his usual earnestness, so you still want to the character to get past his legal hassles prevail. Damien J. Wallace is among the local theater’s ablest character actors. It’s fun to listen to him reel off his character’s lines, wisdom from a serial con to a newbee who is talking himself into more trouble instead of letting the ways of jail work for him. Peter DeLaurier brings substance to anything he does, and his performance as John Brown, and his conversations with Lenée’s Tubman are among the strongest sequences in Ijames’s production. Cheryl Williams is loveable as one of Tubman’s Railroad hosts and despicable as a Southern woman who defends slavery and looks to thwart John Brown’s rebellion. Bowman Wright continues a fine year as the prison officer who enters work each day with contempt for his prisoners, even though Cary shows how easily he could become one. Dax Richardson is fine as a prison chaplain who goes beyond his pay grade to help inmates. Harriet Tubman has been the subject of several works seen lately. The movie, “Harriet,” suffers from the same patness that weakens “My General Tubman.” Deeper portrayals are seen in William Branch’s “In Splendid Error,” which was presented in a joint reading by Philadelphia Artists Collective and Theatre in the X and which has some second act confrontations that show all the conflict and dramatic cohesion that both “Harriet” and “My General Tubman” are missing.

 

A WOMAN OF NO IMPORTANCE — Walnut Street Theatre, 9th and Walnut, Philadelphia, 215-574-3550, www.walnutstreettheatre.org, through March 1 — Morals are tetchy things. A young man whose best prospect will be clerking in a small town bank, honest, respectable, but predictably humble, is offered a job as secretary to a successful businessman and popular noble who intends to take him to London and assure his advancement and fortune. The position will give the man income and status to marry well along with an endorsement that will make him welcome is the snobby British society Oscar Wilde depicts in this early play. All looks well except the young man’s mother has reason to object to her son accepting any advantage from his would-be benefactor and forces a choice between her continued love and company the comfort being a man about town’s assistant affords. The nobles populating the country town where the youth clerks have strong but varying opinions of the subject, even though none of them know the one fact that can determine the boy’s choice. That choice creates suspense that drives the last half of “A Woman of No Importance,” the first half dominated more by the charming nobleman and his milieu. Wilde is Shavianly keen on presenting all arguments, pro and con, that can affect the young man. He is especially sharp in painting the generous noble and the mother who feels alliance with the noble would be a sort of doom. The Walnut Street Theatre production, helmed by artistic director Bernard Havard, is a delight throughout, the experienced ensemble knowing how to get though talky, gossipy scenes that matter more for what they set up than what they express, It takes on its greatest strength in smaller sequences between two or three characters. It’s the conflict that puts a boy’s life in the balance that catches our fancy more than the small talk of the locals. Enjoyable amiability gives way to substance, interest, and high drama when the background characters fade, and the principals take stage to make their individual cases, revealing much about themselves and their histories as they do. You wouldn’t exactly call Wilde’s play contemporary, but the dilemma the young man faces revolves around whether he can overlook, or forgive, something about which he’s informed after he has the excitement and anticipation of an active London life. I always say we live in a new Victorian age, and morals are the crux of “A Woman of No Importance.” The boy must decide the right thing to do, knowing any decision will hurt someone, and one decision will limit his overall chances in life. The actors doing the arguing and making their cases bring both their characters and the situation Wilde develops to life. Havard’s production takes a decided turn for the better when Alicia Roper enters as the mother of the young man. She’s a woman who is not eligible to be part of society — too poor and unconnected — but who has high enough regard to be invited to hobnob with nobles, as does her son. Roper, even before you or she knows the business she will have to enact, brings instant solidity to the Walnut stage. Jane Ridley, Karen Peakes, and the wily Mary Martello, who with one gesture can make a mundane character into an amusing do well in keeping things going, but Roper’s entrance causes a notable change. This is a woman whose seriousness shows. The others natter about all kinds of things, mostly about relations between men and women in a way that must have shocked Wilde’s Victorian audiences. Roper’s Mrs. Arbuthnot has a more sensible air, a more natural charm. You understand why she is included by the upper class when you see her manners and possessed way of speaking. Until Roper appears, most scenes feature a large ensemble. Once she takes stage, the meat of “A Woman of No Importance” enters with her, and Havard’s production becomes more intense and engaging, particularly when you begin taking sides about to whom the young man should yield. The intimate scenes between mother and son, the mother and the man who would take her son to London, and the son and his would-be employer are all absorbing. The arguments and the stakes are interesting. Roper is joined in quality by Brandon O’Rourke as her son, and Ian Merrill Peakes as the man she believes will do her son more harm than good. O’Rourke is particularly deft as playing a young person on the brink of young experience who is ready for more adult pursuits, such as romance and life in a metropolis. He exudes both lingering innocence and the ambition to want something better, something he believes will also benefit his mother. Peakes is easily at home as the charmer who is rogue enough to remain interesting and respectable enough to remain welcome in wholesome homes. He marries urbanity and sincerity well, being the naughtyish rake that entertains ladies while being the gentlemen who can befriend them without threatening them. Unlike O’Rourke’s boy, Peakes’s nobleman has a past, one that involves the boy’s mother. Wilde is deft at holding out and withdrawing hope, Havard is crafty in keeping the boy’s ultimate answer from becoming obvious, and Roper, O’Rourke, and Peakes captivate as they act out their characters’ personalities and concerns. A production that starts by being amusing but too scattered in focus to take full hold jells into a taut, involving three-way tug of war. Martello, Bill Van Horn, Karen Peakes, and Peter Schmitz keep the general sequences engaging enough for their castmates to come through with the later fireworks. Wilde is harder to do than most people think, and Havard and company bring the important scenes home as fresh. The show takes place at a country house, which Roman Tatarowicz makes charming. Mary Folino’s colorful Victorian costumes also catch the eye.

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