A wall of bricks will collapse without mortar, and so will a family that has nothing to hold it together.
That observation is made by Rochester, the sole non-family employee we meet at Smidth's Brickyard, where Herman Kemper's "Alley Apples" takes place.
You can't help wishing this first-time playwright -- whose work is being presented by Fells Point Corner Theatre as the final offering in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival -- had paid more attention to Rochester's words.
Though he has assembled the necessary building blocks -- well-observed characters in combustible situations -- he weakens the structure of his script by tacking on a host of extraneous details.
Many of the script's strengths come through, however. Not only is it chock-full of the type of highly dramatic, internecine warfare that characterizes family businesses at their worst, but at its heart is a trio of rugged, recognizable characters, receiving solid portrayals under Richard Jackson's direction.
Donald Joseph Koch plays Herow, founder of the business and oldest of three sons of a Depression-era farmer. From his first scene, alone in his office and railing against his tardy relatives, Mr. Koch paints a seething picture of a bigoted hothead, whose basic business philosophy is to distrust everyone -- family included.
Herow's judgment is especially impaired when it comes to his good-hearted youngest brother, Joe, portrayed with gentle likability by Tom Nolte. Joe is inherently honest, a quality completely alien to Herow. Nor can Herow fathom Joe's friendship with Rochester, the brickyard's black, illiterate night watchman, thoughtfully portrayed by Paul Ellis.
The tension between these three characters forms a firm dramatic foundation, which Mr. Kemper enhances by setting the play against the backdrop of the civil rights movement of the '60s.
Then he tosses in those extraneous details. The characters of a middle brother and Herow's teen-age nephew are superfluous; they seem to exist primarily for local color, and there's already plenty of that in the extended scenes of family yokels chewing the fat about whiskey and women.
Two flashbacks to Joe's childhood are also troublesome. The problem isn't merely that they are clumsily produced; the playwright seems determined to blame the brothers' difficulties on growing up in a dysfunctional household.
In other words, he's added pop psychology to a script that totters on the edge of a morality play (he even assigns names to the characters that exemplify their attributes -- Herow's sour middle brother is Dill, their sweet-tempered uncle is Sweets, and Herow's name, of course, is ironic). Added to the civil rights theme (not to mention the yokel humor), there's simply too much going on here at once.
Underneath the overstatement, however, "Alley Apples" reveals a frightening insight into the darker workings of a family business. The play also displays a knack for dialogue and characterization. But the playwright needs to learn when to say when.
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8:30 p.m.; Aug. 18 at 7 p.m.; Aug. 25 at 2 p.m. Through Aug. 25.
Where: Fells Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.