Issues' weight dilutes power of 'Splash' Review: Play is strong in cast and politics, but shy on emotion.

November 21, 1997|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Center Stage's production of "Splash Hatch on the E Going Down" will take most theatergoers someplace they've never been before -- inside the mind of a pregnant 15-year-old.

The playwright, Cumberland native Kia Corthron, doesn't shy away from troubling subject matter; she warmly embraces it.

She also skillfully mines poetic language from the vernacular (which at times includes profanity). Corthron brings a distinctive voice to the theater -- somewhere between a hip, next-generation August Wilson and a black, feminist David Mamet -- best expressed in conversations between the protagonist of "Splash Hatch," Thyme, and her best friend, Shaneequa, also a pregnant 15-year-old.

But, while "Splash Hatch" has a number of positive attributes -- including a finely tuned ensemble cast, under Marion McClinton's direction -- it tends to get weighed down in issues.

Thyme, an inquisitive, studious environmentalist, is constantly spouting information and statistics gleaned from her many trips to the library. Her chief concern is environmental racism, specifically the high incidence of pollutants in low-income neighborhoods. (The first half of the play's cryptic title refers to Thyme's desire to give birth in water and the "E" appears to refer in part to both the environment and her 18-year-old husband, Erry.)

But Thyme is also a naive, young girl, and lead actress Margaret Kemp skillfully conveys her combination of intelligence and innocence. When Erry (Akili Prince) begins exhibiting symptoms of lead poisoning, exacerbated by his job as a demolition worker, she can't face the dangerous reality of the situation.

However, Corthron's effort to push Thyme's environmental awareness into activism falls flat. A scene after Thyme has been arrested for committing her personal brand of protest is one of the evening's most strained and least effective moments.

At the same time, the play admirably shatters stereotypes. Granted, Shaneequa -- played by Cherita A. Armstrong with girlish high spirits that bubble over infectiously in her scenes with Thyme -- seems to personify the stereotype; she's unwed, on welfare and pregnant with her second child. But Thyme is a highly individual exception. Not only is she married to the father of her unborn child, but the couple live with Thyme's loving, hard-working parents, portrayed with genuine affection by David Toney and an especially tender Ami Brabson.

Structurally, the play is a series of short scenes in various Harlem settings ranging from a bathroom to a public park. Set designer Michael Yeargan's water motif unifies these settings while emphasizing the play's environmental theme. The painted waves and sky on the set's David Hockney-inspired rear wall disappear under projections of tenement walls, just as urban blight obscures nature.

And so, the playwright's political consciousness is even reflected in the set design. Yet for all of the play's focus on issues, it's difficult to tell how much the characters have learned at the end. Thyme is a loving, concerned young woman, but if the tragedy she experiences touches her deeply, it must do so offstage, because by the final scene she seems to have undergone a quick recovery.

Corthron has said issues are the starting points for her plays. The imbalance between issues and human drama in "Splash Hatch" makes you wonder what would happen if she started with characters instead.

Take away Thyme's soapbox -- or at least decrease its size -- and we might see more of her heart.

'Splash Hatch'

Where: Center Stage, Head Theater, 700 N. Calvert St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 7: 30 p.m. most Sundays, matinees 2 p.m. most Saturdays and Sundays, 1 p.m. Dec. 26 and Dec. 31 (no evening performances Nov. 27, Dec. 24, Dec. 25); through Jan. 4

Tickets: $24-$29

Call: 410-332-0033

Pub Date: 11/21/97

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