Poetry, romance work, but 'Oak and Ivy' drags Theater review: Play about groundbreaker Paul Lawrence Dunbar informative but slow-moving.

March 02, 1996|By J. WYNN ROUSUCK | J. WYNN ROUSUCK,SUN THEATER CRITIC

"I'm something new trying to live in a very old house," says poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar in Kathleen McGhee-Anderson's biographical play, "Oak and Ivy."

The famed turn-of-the-century poet was a ground-breaker and a celebrity. He recited at McKinley's inauguration, and he toured on the same British lecture circuit as Mark Twain -- two events depicted in McGhee-Anderson's play, receiving an informative, though slow-moving, production at Arena Players, under Amini Johari-Courts' direction.

Forward-thinking as Dunbar's poetry may have been, it is this play's thesis that, in his personal life, he was of a traditional mind -- a male chauvinist who maintained his own "very old house," where he was content to be waited on by his adoring mother and was opposed to his wife's efforts to work outside the home.

Not that Dunbar didn't adore his wife -- or she him. The play is billed as a romance, and that aspect comes through in the performances of Michael Kane, as Dunbar, and Tennelia Engram, as the former Alice Ruth Moore. Kane also does a fine job reciting Dunbar's poetry, examples of which are scattered throughout the script -- from the dialect poems his character comes to shun, such as "When Malindy Sings," to such standard English gems as "We Wear the Mask" and "Sympathy," which includes the famous line: "I know what the caged bird feels."

Alice was also a published poet (though Engram is a less com-manding orator than her co-star). A fan of Dunbar's, she corresponded with him for two years before they met. This liberated young woman envisioned their relationship as "two artists living in syncopation." She didn't envision being so busy as her husband's secretary, and eventually as his nurse, that she wouldn't have time for her own writing. Nor did she envision "living in syncopation" with a mother-in-law.

And, no love is lost between Alice and Dunbar's mother, a widowed former slave. Ruth Tutt-Hobson's depiction of Dunbar's mother is two-dimensional, focusing solely on her devotion to her son and her resentment of her daughter-in-law.

I suspect, however, that the character's lack of depth is due to the script, which isn't as polished as might be hoped for a literary work about two literary figures. The playwright attempts literary touches -- epistolary passages and, more effectively, some bouts of dueling poetry between Dunbar and Alice -- but the play rambles and has loose ends.

Arena Players exacerbates these problems with scenery changes that drag the production out to three-and-a-quarter hours. Less realism and more artistic suggestion would help move things along. The play raises a number of important issues, including the difficulty of being taken seriously as a turn-of-the-century black artist and the challenges of achieving an equitable marriage between competing artists. But script production should have taken a cue from Dunbar, who understood the virtue of economy of expression.

'Oak and Ivy'

Where: Arena Platers, 801 McCulloh St.

When: 8:30 p.m., Fridays, 7:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sunday, Matinees at 3 p.m. Sundays Through March 10

Tickets: $12

Call: (410) 728-6500

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