Impressive `Faith' has an impressive newcomer

August 16, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Every now and then something truly distinguished pops up in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Carol Weinberg's "Keeping the Faith" at the Spotlighters has at least two impressive features. The first is the playwright's knack for creating realistic dialogue. The second is the performance of festival newcomer Ran Frazier.

Frazier, a recent graduate of the Carver Center for Arts and Technology, plays a troubled biracial 14-year-old named Derrick. The play takes place at a pivotal time in Derrick's life.

Raised by his devoted maternal grandmother ever since his parents' death in a car crash, Derrick is a sweet kid at heart, and Frazier displays enough genuine warmth to make the teen's inherent goodness thoroughly believable. But he also shows us the mean, rebellious streak that threatens to overtake Derrick's basic nature.

When Frazier's Derrick talks about his tough punk friends, the actor strikes a defiant pose, and his voice takes on an angry tone. He portrays Derrick as a young man so eager to be liked, he's willing to defy his own principles to win the approval of his dubious friends.

At the start of the play, Derrick has just had his first brush with the law. His grandmother -- a smart, self-assured woman, played with intelligence and grit by Debbie Bennett -- is determined it will be his last. Though Derrick protests that his friends don't think he's black enough, his black grandmother feels he needs to get in touch with the part of his heritage he knows nothing about -- his white, Jewish patrimony.

So Derrick reluctantly becomes saddled with a Jewish Big Brother named Peter Baskin -- unaware that Peter is almost as reluctant as he is. Rodney Bonds' Peter is a 43-year-old bachelor who is as uncomfortable with commitment as he is with his own Judaism. In fact, the need to grow up is the chief characteristic he and Derrick share, and the prickly mixture of understanding and antipathy between them is what makes their performances, as well as Weinberg's script, ring true. A second-act monologue Bonds movingly delivers about his character's late grandmother is one of the most heartfelt moments in this summer's festival.

The script isn't flawless. Structurally, Weinberg's reliance on short scenes has more of a choppy, television flavor than a theatrical one. In addition, in times of genuine crisis, the characters have a way of drifting off into, at times, unrelated reminiscences as if nothing else were happening. And, as she did in her previous Playwrights Festival entry, "Every Susie and Sal," Weinberg tends to allow her characters to lecture each other -- in this case, the chief culprit is Peter's rabbi sister (Diane Finlayson).

Bob Bardoff's direction is serviceable, though he needs to keep his actors moving on the Spotlighters' in-the-round stage instead of stranding them with their backs to some of the audience during major speeches. Overall, however, "Keeping the Faith" is one of the festival's shining lights, and Frazier's outstanding performance makes it glow all the brighter.

Show time at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., is 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are $10. Call 410-752-1225.

`Falling Grace'

Religion also figures into another Playwrights Festival offering, Mark Scharf's "Falling Grace," a Directors' Choice Theater production at River Hill High School in Clarksville. In this case, a sky-diving accident raises questions about faith.

When Grace miraculously survives a sky-dive in which her parachute fails to open, she becomes a celebrity in her small Southern town. Not only is she interviewed by the media and deluged with phone calls, she's also pursued by her minister, who's convinced that her miraculous survival -- she walked away without a scratch -- is "incontrovertible proof of God's love."

For her part, Grace simply knows that she feels different; she no longer looks at life the same way. Seeking shelter in her mother's house, where her sister Liz has also come to comfort her, Deborah Elizabeth Striegler's Grace has a strong petulant bent that remains largely unchanged throughout the play.

Though playwright Scharf clearly wants to explore the mystery of faith, he leaves too many mysteries unanswered in his play. Chief among these is the line Grace's fiance (Gareth Kelly) uttered after he packed her parachute and convinced her to sky-dive: "Now we'll find out if God really loves you." The statement receives considerable emphasis by being broadcast repeatedly at the start of the second act, but any implications the line raises are then inexplicably dropped.

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