'Other Side' an impressive coming-of-age play about friendship

August 12, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

The phrase "the other side" in the title of Carol Weinberg's play, "To Get to the Other Side," refers to maturity, self-knowledge, identity -- or, in more literal terms, the other side of childhood.

Weinberg's play, being presented by the Spotlighters as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, is a dual coming-of-age story. It traces the friendship of two teen-age girls -- one white and the other black -- from high school through college and into young adulthood.

Despite its sprawling seven-year time span and numerous settings, "To Get to the Other Side" is one of the best realized productions in what has been, for the most part, a rather disappointing festival. The play's achievement is due in part to Terri Ciofalo's impressively fluid direction and to several fine performances -- particularly those of Tracie Peltzer and Stacey Quartey in the lead roles.

Mostly, though, the show works because it's easy to care about the characters created by Weinberg, who credits her five years as an associate dean at Smith College as the play's inspiration.

When the two girls meet, the difference in their skin color -- Maggie (Peltzer) is white and Keisha (Quartey) is black -- seems inconsequential compared with all they have in common. Both are loners longing for a best friend, and Keisha's father and Maggie's parents are dead.

By graduation, they are so inseparable that they not only decide to go to the same college, but also to room together. This concerns Keisha's mother (Martha A. Saunders), a community organizer who works overtime trying to instill a sense of black pride in her daughter. Before long, her concerns prove justified.

After a racial incident stirs tensions on campus, Keisha, whose nickname for Maggie has always been "Sis," begins to feel a stronger sisterhood with the members of the black students association.

One of the script's distinguishing characteristics is that Weinberg makes us feel the widening gap between Keisha and Maggie not merely by the events of the plot, but also by the breakdown of the easy dialogue they have always shared.

Her touch isn't always this subtle, however. Both young women experience epiphanies when present-day confrontations recall painful childhood memories. But Weinberg overstates these poignant connections by bringing in characters from their youth and allowing Keisha and Maggie to all-too-neatly resolve past and present problems.

Most of the supporting cast members deliver sensitive portrayals, especially Maria Cooper as a shy, Latino college student; Chris Riegel as a mature undergraduate returning to college after raising a family; and Brian Carlton as the graduate student in charge of Maggie and Keisha's increasingly troubled dorm.

At first, "To Get to the Other Side" seems strikingly similar to cartoonist Lynda Barry's off-Broadway hit, "The Good Times Are Killing Me," which was produced at Theatre Hopkins last season. But while that pop-culture look at an interracial friendship tends to be overly cartoon-like, Weinberg's script is built on three-dimensional character development. The result, with a little more fine-tuning, has the potential to be a more solid and serious tale of the pressures -- and pleasures -- of growing up.

"To Get to the Other Side"

Where: Spotlighters Theatre, 817 St. Paul St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; through Aug. 27

Tickets: $8 and $9

Call: (410) 752-1225

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