Saturday, September 13, 2014

A Memorable and Moving First Novel by Ron Irwin: Review of "Flat Water Tuesday"



Ron Irwin has written a remarkable first novel, "Flat Water Tuesday," that is more than just a coming of age saga.  Speaking largely through a combination of flashbacks to his prep school days at Fenton School and real time struggles in New York and on location in Africa, narrator Rob Carrey recounts his post-graduate year rowing for the Fenton "God Four" varsity boat.  It was a tumultuous and life-changing year for each member of the crew - Carrey, John "Jumbo" Perry, Connor, Wadsworth and Ruth - the only female coxswain in the history of Fenton rowing.

The tone and substance of the piece reminded me a bit of several books I have treasured over the years that also have sought to capture something of the ethos and tensions of prep school life: "The Art of Fielding," "A Prayer For Owen Meany," and "A Separate Peace."  Irwin has composed a piece the fleshes out quite well the characters of Carey, Connor, Perry, Ruth and their crusty coach, the enigmatic and inscrutable Channing.  These were individuals similar to ones I had come to know during my own prep school days.  The author captures the below-the-surface undercurrents and tensions that exist within the typical prep school community.  The reader feels the divide that can never be truly crossed between the privileged Ivy league legacy kids who fly off to Aspen for the weekend, and the working class stiffs who have been invited to the party because they excel in academics or an particular sport that is valued in the Ivies.  Crew is one such sport.

Although I could sense the tragedies that lurked just around the next bend in the narrative, I read voraciously to see what would happen to characters whose fates I had come to care about and identify with.  The feel of Irwin's beautiful prose is in evidence in this passage near the end of the story.  Carrey has gone for a run by himself at the end of his class's 15th reunion - a weekend that includes a memorial service for a fallen classmate and member of the God Four crew.:

"And then a miracle.  A boat was making its way down to me.  A small skull, the oars pressing into the water evenly, rhythmically, driven by a good hand.  I waited to hear the sounds of the oarlocks, hear the exhalation of the rower, the backsplash of the blades, but it moved in silence.

It wasn't a sculler.  It was a bird flying out of the sun and over the surface of the water, skimming it, just touching before lifting up and out of the river valley.  I watched it fly over the mountains, wings beating.  I looked once again at the river, but the sunlight had shifted and the surface had become a cool shadow.  And I knew for sure that the bird would continue on and make its way to the ocean.  On its journey it would fly over millions of us.  It would soar over broken hearts and broken bodies and ended relationships and new beginnings and sons and daughters and parents and rivers and boats and schools and kids free for the summer and it would just keep going.  It would fly over cemeteries and cars and houses and fields and roads and highways and then into the clouds, through shame and longing and regret and grief and forgiveness and laughter and childless love." (page 305)

Wow!  That pretty much sums up much of this lovely book and the arc of many of our lives.

Enjoy!

Al

Friday, September 12, 2014

An Astonishingly Timely Production of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" at the Huntington Theatre Company




As I made my way toward the Huntington Theatre Company's home on Boston's "Avenue of the Arts" to see the inaugural play of the 2014-2015 season, "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner," my thoughts turned to the 1967 film that won multiple Academy Awards and filled theaters across the country.  Back in those troubled times leading up to the explosions of 1968, the tectonic plates of racial tension were grinding away at one another beneath the surface.  We came to the neighborhood theaters and screening rooms to see the flickering faces of Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn and Sidney Poitier.  We came to see how Hollywood would deal with the hot potato issue of inter-racial marriage at a time when such unions were finally legal across the land, thanks to a recent Supreme Court landmark decision. We came to be reassured the the "problem of race" need not be a long-running Greek tragedy.

As I entered the theatre last evening - almost fifty years after having seen the film version of this story - I arrived fully aware of how many changes have taken place.  After all, we have a man of color sitting in the Oval office - something unthinkable in the 1960s.  I came expecting to observe and to admire a quaint museum piece of a story.  How wrong I was!  This production of "Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" hit me between the eyes and grabbed my heart and my mind.  This production pays homage, certainly, to the film and in may ways stands on the shoulders of the William Rose's screen play.  But under the wise and skillful re-working by playwright Todd Kreidler and Director, David Esbjornson, this iteration of the classic tale takes more risks and is more honest about nuances of racial tension than Hollywood dared to be back in those days.

So I took my place in the orchestra section and began to examine the set for clues about how this version of the story would be told.  Dane Laffrey's scenic design is brilliant.  I first noticed the tension between the contemporary architecture of the sumptuous home of the Drayton family - perched high on a hill overlooking San Francisco - and the home's furnishings.  Scattered throughout the home were antiques from an earlier century.  The home spoke of order, tradition, modernity and the tacit desire to straddle changing times and tastes.  And then later in the play, at a crucial moment of tension, I was shocked to see the set begin to revolve - offering a fresh perspective to the characters and to the audience members.  That ability to revolve and to view things from a different angle served for me as a metaphor for the kind of flexibility that each character in the play would need to demonstrate if they were to be part of the solution to the "problem" that arose when Dr. John Prentice was ushered into the unsuspecting home of the militantly liberal Draytons.

The arena having been prepared for the battle to come, the combatants entered one by one.  Mr. Esbjornson has assembled a cast that bring not only individual acting ability of the first order, they also bring the ability to play off of one another with the kind of genuineness and spontaneity that occurs when families let it all hang out in the heat of battle.  The tensions felt real, often conveyed with gestures, raised eyebrows, scornful stares and exasperated sighs.  I was spellbound throughout the play.

The segues between scenes were handled creatively, with actors in shadows moving in slow motion, emblematic of the shadow world of honest thoughts and feelings that cowered beneath the carefully guarded speeches that characters made to one another.  Credit for these effects belongs to Lighting Designer Allen Lee Hughes.  Sound Designer Ben Emerson adds period Top 40 Hits that set the time and the mood to perfection.  Costumes by Paul Tazewell finish the job of character definition.

Let me share some thoughts about specific cast members:

Lynda Gravatt plays the Drayton's cook, Matilda "Tillie" Binks.  She gets more mileage out of a shrug of a shoulder or a scornful leer than most actors.  She is magnificent in this role.  She straddles two eras. She lives in the present, but she brings with her from the South an ante bellum sense of a Mammy protecting the white child she helped to raise.  Her distrust of Dr. Prentice, whom she views as a dangerous con artist, adds a layer of tension that propels the narrative forward at several points in the play.

Wendy Rich Stetson plays Hilary St. George, the woman who runs the art gallery that is owned by Mrs. Drayton. She is the lighting rod for Mrs. Drayton's outburst when Christina hears the blatant racism coming from Hilary, disguised as "concern."  Ms. Stetson is wonderful in this role - all coiffured elegance combined with awkward entrances and exits that serve to highlight the absurdity of the situation in which the characters find themselves.  She has a memorable scene in which she is carrying easels out of the Drayton home.  That scene defined the character of Hilary for me, for she serves as a sort of human easel, displaying in its proper light and framing the assumptions and prejudices that are only hinted at and sketched out by others.

Julia Duffy is Christina Dayton.  She is torn between conflicting maternal instincts to both protect her daughter from harm and to promote her daughter's happiness. She is also torn between duty to her daughter and to her husband.  Ms. Duffy conveys the essence of her character's struggles brilliantly through her physical demeanor and her facial expressions.. We are convinced that is is on the verge of fainting when Dr. Prentice, speaking from his medical expertise, instructs her to sit down as she begins to confront the reality that her precious daughter "Joey" has fallen in love with a man whose skin is black!

Will Lyman as Matt Drayton
Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta
Will Lyman portrays the father, Matt Drayton.  Workaholic, lion of journalistic liberalism and inclusion, he is recovering from a heart attack.  His values and very identity are challenged when he is confronted with the logical conclusion of the liberal values he has inculcated in his daughter, Joanna.  There are good reasons why Mr. Lyman has been honored with a Lifetime Achievement Elliot Norton Award.  He is the ultimate professional actor and story teller.  He is both magisterial and vulnerable at the moment in the play when he tells the others what his day has been like in dealing with one unexpected blow after another.  It is a moving moment in this play, and is a perfect example of the writer and actor being in perfect harmony with one another.

Meredith Forlenza plays Joanna Drayton skillfully as a complex amalgam of passion, realism, optimism, hard-headed determination and courage.  She navigates the turbulant seas among the rocky islands of her parents, her finance, her beloved Tillie and her recalcitrant future in laws.  She herself is an island of calm in the midst of several tumults.  We are rooting for her to find a way to go off to New York and Geneva with her dark knight without having to alienate her family.  Her character is defined when she notices the cactus blooming on the patio at a particularly difficult time in her negotiations with Dr. Prentice about whether their relationship has a chance to bloom in the desert of opposition that stretches out before them.

Malcolm-Jamal Warner is Dr. John Prentice, acclaimed expert in tropical medicine, and the proximate cause for all of the conflict that is the essence of the play.  The young man many of us first met as Theo Huxtable has grown into a very skilled actor. Mr. Warner commands the stage from the moment of his entrance.  Particularly in his confrontation with his angry father, his character is able to convey a broad spectrum of emotions - from being intimidated to forcefully proclaiming his right to create a new world.  It is a praise-worthy performance.

Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta


His father, John Prentice, Sr., is played with withering rage by Lonnie Farmer.  Mr. and Mrs. Prentice enter the scene and the fray late in Act II.  Their shock at learning that their precious child plans to embark on an inter-racial marriage mirrors the shock that the Draytons had broadcast in Act I.  Their introduction into the narrative serves a purpose similar to the Yin and Yang of the two acts of "Clybourne Park." In that play as well this present play, it is clear that the fears and defenses and hatreds of racism flow from both sides of the racial chasm of America - a chasm that has been carved over the centuries by the rivers of slavery, Reconstruction, Jim Crow and lingering prejudice.  Mr. Farmer is effective as the hard working man who has labored too hard to provide an education for his son to see him thrown it all away by exposing himself to the inevitable opprobrium that will befall him and Joanna should they go through with their foolhardy plan to wed.

Mrs. Prentice is played with quiet dignity by Adriane Lenox.  Physically spare and almost frail, she emerges as a tower of strength in listening to her son's cry from the heart, and in mediating between the son and the father's long-smoldering animus for one another.

Rounding out this stellar cast is Monsignor Ryan, played with pitch perfect elan by Patrick Shea. Full of both platitudes and Platonic wisdom, the good Reverend serves as gadfly to the State that is Matt Drayton - challenging his hypocrisy and inconsistency as no one else could who has not been a life long golf partner.  Intoxicated by equal parts of Spirit and spirits, he hovers over the household like a dipso-maniacal guardian angel.

The Cast of
"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner"
Adriane Lenox as Mary Prentice
Lonnie Farmer as John Prentice, Sr.
Julia Duffy as Christina Drayton
Malcolm-Jamal Warner as Dr. John Prentice
Meredith Forlenza as Joanna Drayton
Patrick Shea as Monsignor Ryan

Huntington Theatre Company
Photo: Paul Marotta
The racially diverse audience responded with enthusiasm to the play.  There were moments of tension and sudden hushed vocal outbursts from the audience when a character would utter a word or phrase that was less than politically correct.  In the discussion period following the performance, it was clear that audience members across a wide racial, generational and socio-economic spectrum found the play intriguing, challenging and very timely.  I found it to be all of those things, as well as deeply moving.

"Guess Who's Coming To Dinner" will run through October 5.  I suggest that you get your tickets now before they are all gone. Don't be late for "Dinner"!

Huntington Theatre Website

Enjoy!

Al