Tale of family joy and anger

Family: `Jar the Floor' displays four generations of love and discord.

Theater

October 11, 2001|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Cheryl West's Jar the Floor takes place on the day four generations of women gather to celebrate the 90th birthday of matriarch MaDear. But as Arena Players' production makes unmistakably clear, these ladies are a contentious, outspoken bunch. They've probably never had a family celebration that wasn't rife with recriminations.

MaDear (whose grasp on reality is so tenuous she doesn't realize her husband is dead) resents her daughter, Lola, and granddaughter, MayDee, for uprooting her from her Mississippi home. MayDee, in turn, resents Lola for being man-crazy and, as we later find out, for more serious reasons. And MayDee's daughter, Vennie, resents her college-professor mother for being too controlling.

Each of the mothers dreams of a better life for her daughter, but the mothers' dreams are rarely the same as the daughters'. When Lola says, "I did the best I could," she's speaking for all the women in this family. And so is Vennie, when she announces, "Being your daughter hurts." The different generations may say the same things, but an inability to listen appears to be an inherited trait in this family.

West fills the stage with strong female characters and gives them powerful speeches. Arena's cast members keep these characters strictly delineated, while allowing us to recognize similarities the family members themselves deny. (As is customary at Arena, several roles are double cast; of the performances I saw, Laura Sligh's straight-laced MayDee, Paulette Pace's uninhibited Lola, Tennelia R. Engram's self-righteous Vennie and Teresa Altoz, as Vennie's white girlfriend, were particularly effective.)

Combative as these woman may be, they also are capable of great love and joy. Indeed, the closing scene in which the women "jar the floor" with their dancing is similar in spirit to the exuberant scene of the sisters dancing in Brian Friel's Tony Award-winning Dancing at Lughnasa.

West's play is about finding the tender bond underneath the intense anger, and director Randolph Smith's production - though slow-going in the first act - allows that heart to beat warmly by the final curtain.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 21. Tickets cost $15. Call 410-728-6500.

Theatre Project fill-in

The Theatre Project has added a show to fill in for FillerUp, which has been postponed until February. The new show, Harrington & Kauffman's Motel California, is about a Belgian (Richard Harrington) who misinterprets the lyrics of an American rock song and becomes a hired killer, only to subsequently redeem himself as a cabaret singer. Chris Kauffman plays his mostly silent co-conspirator.

Kauffman, a former Baltimorean, met Harrington in a 1997 clowning workshop taught by David Shiner. They have performed Motel California in Canada, New York, the Czech Republic and at HBO's U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen.

Show times at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St., are 8 p.m. Oct. 18-20 and 25-27. Tickets cost $12. For information, call 410-752-8558.

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