Human relationships are poorly realized in 'Between the Lines'

August 19, 1994|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

One advantage a play can have over, say, a novel, is that it can show instead of tell. But Robert R. Bowie Jr.'s "Between the Lines" is full of telling instead of showing.

Part of this telling is done in monologues, and part takes the form of history lessons. The result is a play in which even the backdrop of the Civil War and the trusty device of a play-within-a-play are deprived of potential dramatic value.

Bowie's sixth Baltimore Playwrights Festival offering -- and his third to be produced by Fell's Point Corner Theatre -- "Between the Lines" is a stab at something complex.

The script focuses on a woman named Sarah who attempts to sort out the problems in her marriage by reflecting on the start of the relationship. Most of her reflections are presented as flashbacks to the time when her husband, Jake, was school president and she was the headmistress' daughter at a progressive high school.

In Sarah's memory, two major events occurred in their senior year. One was the class play she wrote about the Battle of Gettysburg. The other was that she and Jake were expelled because she was pregnant. The fact that these events don't sound equal in weight turns out to be a recurring flaw in the script.

The action begins in the present with a brief silent scene of Jake unconscious in the hospital. We soon learn he was shot by random gunfire on the night Sarah told him their marriage was over. But whether he lives or dies seems of less concern to Sarah than her musings over whether the Battle of Gettysburg, and particularly the deserters, could be a metaphor for their failed marriage.

This isn't all that's out of kilter. Jake and Sarah's school was supposedly progressive, but in their senior year the fascistic assistant headmaster had no difficulty persuading the board he should replace Sarah's liberal mother. Skipping ahead to the present, no one in Sarah's family seems to understand: 1) Why she won't visit Jake in the hospital, or 2) What's wrong with their marriage. Frankly, neither did I.

Despite these problems, Melissa Meyd provides an assured, sympathetic performance as Sarah, a character whose repeated monologues also cast her in the role of narrator. (She even managed to keep me from wincing at the play's coda, when she asked members of the audience to take someone's hand before leaving.)

Under Richard Jackson's direction, the other performances are variable. As Sarah's mother, Trisha Blackburn illuminates a mother-daughter bond that comes across as the play's strongest relationship. And as Jake, who is primarily seen at age 18, Tony Reda delivers a credible depiction of a smart but stubborn teen-ager. However, saddled with the role of the villainous assistant headmaster, John Wright does nothing to round out this one-dimensional character, and Joe Dennison fares little better as Jake's once-radical father.

"Between the Lines" raises some interesting issues: How do we separate historical fact from fiction? Does history repeat itself? If so, can we change it? Bowie, however, spends so much time pontificating on these points that he shortchanges the human relationships on stage. He seems to have forgotten that relationships are a basic component of not only drama, but history as well.

"Between the Lines"

Where: Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St.

When: 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 7 p.m. Sundays. Through Aug. 28

Tickets: $10

Call: (410) 276-7837


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