All this and `Heaven' too

THEATER

Ghostly beings lighten Walker's gritty urban play

May 23, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

According to a rule established by Chekhov, if a gun shows up at the start of a play, it must be fired before the ending. Well, a gun appears in the first five minutes of George F. Walker's Heaven, and given this playwright's proclivity for violent subject matter, it's no surprise that gunfire figures into the plot, along with various other homicidal stratagems.

If you can stomach a good bit of stage violence - and accompanying profanity - director Barry Feinstein's production at Fell's Point Corner Theatre offers a number of rewards, chief among them a stage full of dynamic performances.

A Canadian playwright whose work has been produced locally at this theater and Center Stage, Walker specializes in scabrous urban dramas. And with its surfeit of inner city crime and corruption, Heaven certainly falls into that category.

But there's something uncharacteristic here as well - a bold leap into the realm of non-naturalistic theater. Dead characters make periodic visits from the hereafter, leavening the show's heavy drama with irreverence and even musical comedy (the humorous choreography is by Katherine Jaeger).

The play begins with an undercover policeman named Karl (Chris Graybill) sitting on a park bench, dejected and drinking from a pint bottle. Karl has arranged for a lawyer named Jimmy (Joseph Riley) to meet him in the park. When Jimmy appears, the cop lambastes him for winning a lawsuit that led Karl's partner to commit suicide.

What's intriguing about this opening is that it makes Karl look like a good guy and Jimmy look like scum. That's not the way it works out, though neither is exactly a paragon of virtue. Both may have started out as altruists, but Walker's play reinforces the notion that the line between lawmen and lawbreakers - not to mention good and evil, heaven and hell - is sometimes thin.

Jimmy is the more complex character, and Riley portrays him as a troubled man who has anger flowing through his veins. His law practice is dedicated to human rights, but he's the most bigoted man on stage. His Jewish wife (Pam Feldman) accuses him of being anti-Semitic, and when he's approached by a homeless black man (Jerome Banks-Bey), Jimmy unleashes so many stereotyped preconceptions, he provokes the reluctant guy into slugging him.

Walker weaves more plot twists into Heaven than a season's worth of TV cop shows - far too many to go into here. But it's the incongruities that make the play interesting. On the corporeal level, Jimmy's wife's rabbi (played with gentle strength by Ben Thomas) whom he detests and belittles, winds up keeping house for Jimmy. On the ethereal level, there are those visitors from the world beyond.

Amusing as the heavenly visitations may be, however, they also contribute to the play's chief shortcoming - preachiness. For a writer with a knack for putting compelling action on stage, Walker waxes disappointingly didactic (particularly in the final scene, which Jimmy describes as "an act at the celestial improv"). The playwright has also created a character who comes across too blatantly as an angel of hope, despite being a teen-age drug addict and runaway.

The latter description is not meant to disparage Cheryl Skafte's topnotch performance, which deftly combines innocence and street smarts. Indeed, the production's gritty performances are one of the best reasons to see it - that and the fact that, despite its flaws, Heaven is a play that'll get you thinking about everything from law and order to the purpose of existence and the likelihood of an afterlife. Any play that does all that certainly has something going for it.

Show times at Fell's Point Corner, 251 S. Ann St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturday, 2 p.m. Sundays, through June 2. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

Project's lineup changes

Queer Cafe - the anthology of gay and lesbian theater pieces that the Theatre Project has presented for the last six years - is going on hiatus. The showcase of short works produced by Baltimore's Pussycat Theatre Company was to have run from June 13 to June 29, but was postponed due to other professional commitments of Pussycat artistic director, Susan Lev.

Replacing it will be a short engagement of Witness: A Celebration of Poetry and Song, produced by Collective Cry, a local outreach program dedicated to supporting diverse voices and working toward social change. "This gives us another opportunity to showcase the vibrancy of our local arts scene," said Theatre Project producing director Anne Cantler Fulwiler.

Witness will be presented at 8 p.m. June 27-29 at the Theatre Project, 45 W. Preston St. Tickets are $15. For more information, call 410-752-8558.

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