Small-town life simply too slow in `Joe Pete'


August 23, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

When playwright Jim Sizemore writes a trilogy, he takes his time. In 1985, the Baltimore Playwrights Festival produced his play, "Cecil, Virginia, 1964." Now, a mere 13 years later, part two of the trilogy, "Joe Pete," is a Playwrights Festival entry at Fell's Point Corner Theatre.

Like its playwright, "Joe Pete" also takes its time. Set in the same year and the same small Virginia town as its predecessor, the evocative "Joe Pete" alternates scenes in a mental hospital with flashbacks to a bar on the day the title character committed the crime that brought his sanity into question.

The bar scenes make up most of the play as Joe Pete, two friends and the bartender discuss women, deer hunting, work in the local paper mill, country music, etc. Cecil is no fast-paced metropolis, and the tempo at the tavern is slower still, with the first act characterized more by distractions than actions. Still, when the conversation focuses on guns and women, there can be little doubt about where the plot is heading.

Leo Knight plays taciturn Joe Pete as a stubborn male chauvinist with a hair-trigger temper. Neither of his hunting buddies is a particularly bright bulb, but as played by Mark A. Lewis and Mike Nowicke, both are basically good-natured, working class guys. And Lewis, whose character is a would-be songwriter, turns out to be a pretty fair country-western singer, although the playwright misses an opportunity to give him a song that comments, even subtly, on the action.

Richard Peck is especially amusing as the boring, anecdote-spinning barkeep. The only colorless role is that of Joe Pete's court-appointed psychiatrist (Anne O'Reilly).

Under Richard Dean Stover's direction, the four men are convincing as longtime cronies. Their physical interaction, however, is hampered by a set (designed by Knight) that is dominated by a pool table -- an obstacle in more ways than one since neither of the so-called players displays any skill at the game.

As he did in "Cecil, Virginia, 1964," Sizemore -- who is now slowly working on the third part of the trilogy -- gives a clear sense of the claustrophobic, lethargic life in a small Southern mill town. In "Joe Pete," however, there's not quite enough drama to warrant a full, two-act play.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10 and $11. Call 410-276-7837.

`Gladys in Wonderland'

At the Vagabond Players, Rosemary Frisino Toohey's "Gladys in Wonderland" -- the Playwrights Festival's final production -- is supposedly a lighthearted look at death. This is a tough trick to pull off, and despite the presence of an extremely amiable angel of death, the play's premise is so unpleasant, it obliterates any hope of comedy.

The premise is delivered in a series of monologues by the play's narrator, Doris, the title character's grown daughter. Doris informs us that she is worried about her 81-year-old mother living alone -- so worried that she would prefer it if mom were dead and buried. ("Why doesn't her heart just give out?" Doris whines in one speech in which she talks about imagining her mother's funeral.)

Besides being thoroughly odious, Doris' concerns simply don't make sense. Just what is she worried about? It can't be that her mother will die, because that's precisely what this cold, selfish daughter wants.

Furthermore, from what we see of Kathy Sladek's Gladys, she is a vital, friendly, spirited octogenarian. True, she may occasionally put mustard or orange juice on her breakfast cereal instead of milk, and she sometimes loses track of her eyeglasses. But when confronted with James Edward Lee as the charming, white-suited angel, Gladys' thought processes are clear enough for her to convince him repeatedly to give her another chance.

We also meet some of Gladys' other relatives and friends, all of whom appear to find her very existence a pain in the neck. In fact, the angel tells Gladys he is taking her before her time because so many people wish she were dead.

Playwright Toohey may be trying to suggest ironically that doomed Gladys is the only one who actually deserves to live. (Personally, I was more than ready to take out a contract on daughter Doris.) But nothing about the cheery, sitcom tone of director Betty May's production feels the least bit ironic.

Show times at the Vagabond Players, 806 S. Broadway, are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 7 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $10. Call 410-563-9135.

Pub Date: 8/23/99

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