Insightful character studies and strong performances characterize the last of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival's productions, "Alley Apples" by Herman Kemper, on stage at the Fells Point Corner Theatre through Aug. 25.
The action takes place in a small Southern town in a family-owned brickyard. The title refers to discarded or broken bricks that strew the back alley and is symbolic of the damaged lives of the major characters.
The year is 1969, the time of the civil rights movement, riots and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Segregation in this town is a way of life.
The play mainly concerns the frayed relationships of three brothers. Their father, known as Pop, founded the brickyard and made it a financial success. He is a crusty, hard-drinking old codger of questionable moral values. Semi-retired, he has turned the running of the business over to the oldest son, Herow.
Why he does this is puzzling. Herow is not his favorite. Youngest brother Joe is the most efficient and decent of the lot. Herow, a certifiable paranoid nut case, seethes with jealousy over Joe and manipulates and bullies everyone to his own advantage.
Joe is a compassionate soul who befriends the downtrodden. He is a close friend of Rochester, the black man who tends night watch at the yard.
Then there is the troublesome Dill, the middle brother, an alcoholic who was weaned on whiskey as an infant by the boys' abusive mother. Joe also has painful memories of the cruelties inflicted on him by their unstable parent.
Sweets is Pop's younger brother. Weak but likable, he is on welfare but helps out at the brickyard. He has an ambiguous relationship with Sunshine, the tough but heart-of-gold woman who looks after him.
Kemper's play presents a case of extreme racial prejudice and the horrifying, violent consequences. In this slow-moving soap opera the relationships between the characters, a motley crew, baffle at times. A completely extraneous character is the role of Crater, Herow's nephew, who does nothing to enhance the work.
This original production is well-constructed to a degree but needs clearer focus. (There is confusion about the death of the first-born brother, George. Was Herow responsible?) The play goes on too long and is redundant. Seduced by his own dialogue, Kemper takes much too much time to make his vital points. The first act introduces no conflict.
Important exposition explaining the background and motivations of characters is revealed too late in the play in an overly long scene between Pop and Sunshine.
One of the questions raised in viewing this work is why the father did not curb his wife's heinous actions, which have evidently scarred his sons for life.
Despite its flaws, the humor, interesting character studies and powerful confrontation scenes make this play worth seeing.
There is fine direction by Richard Jackson and outstanding performances. Bob Nelson is fine as a droll, disreputable but likable Pop. A tenderly poignant performance is given by Paul Ellis as the victimized Rochester. Tom Nolte as Joe offers a sensitive and moving interpretation.
Wayne Knickel is excellent as the unfortunate Sweets. Lynda C. Lambert as Sunshine should imbue her character with more depth and warmth. Donald Koch as Herow has a tendency to stay on one shouting level. We need to see the hurt inner man -- the resentment, the paranoia, the slow buildup of his characterization to unspeakable violence.
NOTEWORTHY: Cockpit in Court, the summer theater in residence at Essex Community College, is ending its season with a pleasantly entertaining version of Lerner and Lowe's enchanting musical "Brigadoon" on the company's main stage. Fine singing by Jonathan Oyler, Klaude J. Krannebitter and Kris Goss. In the Upstairs Cabaret at Cockpit is "Broadway Bound," Neil Simon's final chapter in his trilogy. Funny and touching, the play features some good performances, especially by M.L. Grout as Kate and Max Geller as Jack. The productions' runs end Sunday.