'Flowering Peach' proves Bible is hard act to follow

June 26, 1992|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Theater Critic

It almost seems as if Theatre Hopkins is carving out a specialty staging outdoor productions in which the cast builds part of the set before our eyes. Two seasons ago the actors constructed a teahouse in "Teahouse of the August Moon," and now they're building Noah's ark in "The Flowering Peach," Clifford Odets retelling of the story of the Flood.

Although this construction process is rather charming to witness, "The Flowering Peach" is not only an uncharacteristic play for the politically oriented Odets, it is also a largely unsatisfying one, adding few, if any, insights to the Old Testament tale. In fact, except for the building opportunities it affords the cast, it's difficult to understand why director Suzanne Pratt was attracted to this rather obscure script.

To make matters worse, the relatively primitive amplification system used in the meadow at Evergreen House seems less effective than ever. The set-up is basically the same as that utilized in the early talkies; actors speak into a couple of stationary microphones while attempting to be oblivious to their presence. For cast members with strong vocal projection, such as Stan Weiman and Richard Jackson, who play Noah and his oldest son, Shem, this is no problem. But as Noah's wife, Doris Margulis is not only soft-spoken, she frequently faces away from the mikes, causing the audience to miss many of her lines.

Admittedly, what we're missing doesn't seem all that earth-shattering. By presenting a modern-seeming family -- judging from the familial squabbles -- Odets appears to be suggesting that God deliberately chose average folk (not to mention, of course, that the common man was Odets' favorite character). In any event, it's hard to imagine any other logical explanation for not drowning greedy Shem or womanizing Ham, his younger brother, as they are depicted by Odets.

However, while this may be one of Odets' less overtly political plays, it is not immune from his trademark sermonizing. (How could you have a Biblical play without a sermon?) In this case, the message is delivered by Noah, who wraps things up by saying, "Now it's in man's hands to make or destroy the world." That's undoubtedly another reason Odets populated his play with average Joes; he's telling the audience it's up to us -- not superheroos -- to make the world a better place.

Besides Weiman and Jackson, a few other cast members rise above the obstacles of the creaky sound system and creaky script. As Japheth, Noah's favorite but most skeptical son, Jack Manion brings gentleness and earnestness to his struggles with his father and his God. Patricia Coleman reveals an equally gentle streak as the long-suffering wife of philandering Ham. And Vivian Hasbrouk delivers the production's freshest performance as a woman of easy virtue but a virtuous heart, who saves Japheth's life.

Odets does add a few amusing one-liners to this epic tale. My favorite is Noah's comment on Shem's desire to hoard his gold for their new life. "Next he'll say he's saving the money for a rainy day," Noah says. But all joking aside, the real message of this play is that it's awfully difficult to improve on the Bible.

'The Flowering Peach'

When: Tomorrow and Sunday at 6:15 p.m. (In case of rain Sunday only, performance will be rescheduled for July 3 at 8:30 p.m. at Shriver Hall, Johns Hopkins University). One scheduled indoor matinee, July 5 at 2:15 p.m. at Shriver Hall.

Where: Evergreen House meadow, 4545 N. Charles St.

Tickets: $5.

Call: (410) 516-7159.

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