`Flowers' a tale of sacrifice, friends

THEATER

Spoler production lacks strength of his previous work

August 15, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Playwright Chuck Spoler's Memorial Day was one of the revelations of last year's Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Spoler's new festival entry, Watching Lotus Flowers Blossom, shares one of the earlier play's settings and two of its characters.

It also shares a number of themes -- the meaning of friendship, the nature of sacrifice and facing the past. It's even been produced by the same theater, the Audrey Herman Spotlighters.

But at the risk of resorting to a cliche (and this play resorts to several), lightning has not struck twice. Memorial Day took the audience, as well as the characters, on a journey of self-discovery whose clever twists mimicked the play's central commentary on the dangers of misleading perceptions.

In Lotus Flowers, the audience is frequently several steps ahead of the characters, and almost all of the play's discoveries are related through flashbacks. Instead of actively uncovering the truth for themselves, the main characters passively receive information by eavesdropping on their parents' past.

Once again set on Memorial Day, the play begins in a cemetery where a young man named Charlie (Brian J. Thomas) reluctantly finds himself drawn into a conversation with Jerry, a self-described "burned-out Vietnam vet" suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Even if you didn't see Memorial Day, it doesn't take long to figure out that Jerry -- played by Bill Hardy as a benevolent crackpot -- has mysterious powers. One of the play's major shortcomings is that it leaves so little to the imagination. "I'm everyman, the eternal soldier, and my redemption has been to set the record straight," Jerry says for the benefit of anyone who might miss the point.

In Charlie's case, that record concerns his deceased war-hero father (Chad Taylor), Charlie's half-Vietnamese best friend, Thomas (Andy Pham), and Thomas' parents (Michelle Garthe and Rodney S. Bonds). The plot's most interesting development is the way the characters' relationships turn out to be different from what they initially appear. But there's more than a little soap opera thrown into the mix, together with some greeting card-level sentimentality.

Under Deborah Newman's direction, the performances are satisfactory, but neither the cast nor the director is able to sharpen the focus of Spoler's fractured script, which starts as Charlie's story, switches to Thomas and ends up zeroing in on his mother. By the final scene, even the metaphors are too obvious. At the start of the scene, Thomas' cold, distant mother is seen drawing a picture of a lotus flower that won't blossom; by the end, she has drawn it in full bloom.

In his previous play, Spoler trusted theatergoers to draw connections and conclusions; this time he has made all the connections for them, and the result is less satisfying and less dramatic.

Show times at the Spotlighters, 817 St. Paul St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 24. Tickets are $12. Call 410-752-1225.

Meet the characters

In other news from the Baltimore Playwrights Festival, Dwight Davis and Earl Rhine, the models for the characters of Dwight and Earl in Gene Gately's OK, OK at Fell's Point Corner Theatre, will attend the final performance this Sunday and participate in a post-show discussion.

The playwright met Davis and Rhine in 1959 in Asia, where the two men, a pair of former military medical corpsmen, were working with Dr. Thomas A. Dooley. That work forms the basis of Gately's play.

Davis, who is retired from a career with various humanitarian organizations, is flying in from Seattle; Rhine will be coming from Dallas, where he has an auto repair shop. Gately, a retired CIA official, is a founder and executive vice president of the Institute for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence.

The after-play discussion -- which will also include the playwright, director and cast -- will begin at 8:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. OK, OK continues at the theater, 251 S. Ann St., at 8 p.m. tonight-Saturday and 7 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $11 and $12. Call 410-276-7837.

`Man of La Mancha'

The new revival of Man of La Mancha, starring Tony Award-winner Brian Stokes Mitchell, Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio and Ernie Sabella, will play an exclusive pre-Broadway engagement at Washington's National Theatre from Oct. 8 to Nov. 10. Directed by British director Jonathan Kent and designed by Paul Brown, the production will begin previews on Broadway Nov. 19.

Show times at the National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave. N.W., are 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays (7:30 p.m. Oct. 27 and Nov. 10), with matinees at 2 p.m. Saturdays, Sundays and most Thursdays. Tickets are $47.50-$77.50 and go on sale Sept. 6. Call 800-447-7400.

Auditions

The Columbia Orchestra Auditions for string instruments (inquire about winds and percussion), 8:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m.-10 p.m. Monday at the Vantage House in Columbia. Call 410-480-0177 or e-mail AnneSWard@aol.com.

New Wave Singers Auditions for fall 2002, 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Aug. 21 and 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Aug. 24 at Govans Presbyterian Church, 5828 York Road. All voice ranges and skill levels are encouraged to audition. Call 410-558-4692 or visit www.newwavesingers.org.

Columbia Pro Cantare Chorus Auditions for chorus' 26th season. Rehearsals begin Sept. 3 and are held 7:30 p.m.-10 p.m. every Tuesday at Hammond High School in Columbia. Call 410-730-8549 or 410-465-5744 for more information.

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