Comic scenes revive `Anna'

Melodrama: Rep Stage presents a 1940s tear-jerker that has a place in theatrical history.


October 03, 2002|By William Hyder | William Hyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Anna Lucasta by Philip Yordan is a melodrama with a simple story: A young woman who has gone wrong is redeemed by the love of a good man.

First performed in 1944, it'sold-fashioned and obvious by today's standards. But it's being performed by Rep Stage because it holds an important place in theatrical history:

It was the first Broadway show that featured an all-black cast that didn't specifically portray African-Americans, but appeared as unlabeled, mainstream people.

Before the play opens, Anna has been thrown out by her father. In the 1940s, outright mention of child abuse and incest would have been too shocking, so the script merely implies that the father felt lust for his daughter. He never acted on his impulses, but when he caught Anna having sex with a man his jealousy turned into an implacable hatred. Anna left the family's Pennsylvania home and drifted into prostitution in Brooklyn, N.Y.

As the action begins, we meet the family: the father, Joe, his wife, Theresa, Anna's brother Stanley, her sister Stella, Stanley's wife, Katie, and Stella's husband, Frank. They avoid speaking of Anna, but this changes when Rudolf comes on the scene. Rudolf is a college graduate with a little money who is looking for a teaching job and maybe a wife.

Stanley, Stella and Frank dream about what they could do with Rudolf's money, an attitude Katie deplores. Frank, impressively played by Jefferson A. Russell, is an unpleasant combination of con man and bully. He comes up with a plan: Bring Anna back, try to get Rudolf to fall for her and then play on his feelings to get him to come across with some cash.

In one way it works - Rudolf and Anna are instantly attracted to each other - but Rudolf is too smart to fall for Frank's scheme. He proves to be a thoroughly decent man, which makes Anna fear she's not good enough for him. In a major emotional scene, well-played and directed, Rudolf's ardor and simple goodness, reinforced by her mother's encouragement, overcome Anna's reluctance to accept him.

Anna's married happiness is brief. Danny, a sailor she consorted with in her Brooklyn days, turns up, and her father reveals her past to everyone. Convinced that her marriage is ruined, she retreats to Brooklyn with Danny.

It's a serious story (and it doesn't end there), but the treatment is dated. What makes the show work today are its many comic scenes that, under Jennifer L. Nelson's direction, the actors play broadly.

Anna, played by Deidra LaWan Starnes, is a complex character. She can be sweet. She knows how to flirt. She has happy and tender moments. She also has a smart mouth that does her no good. Starnes plays her beautifully in all these moods, but doesn't quite manage the hardness Anna has to show when working her trade.

The character of Rudolf is too good to be believable, but J.J. Johnson does his best with it. Kevin Jiggetts makes a strong and convincing Danny. Also convincing are Willette Thompson as Blanche, a hooker, and Kelly Gardner as Danny's well-bred shipmate Lester. There's good work from Cleo Pizana (Stanley), Dawn Ursula (Stella), Rachel Spaght (Katie), Shawn Douglas (a policeman) and Jamel (Michael) Wade (Eddy).

Bus Howard works hard in the demanding role of Joe, a man who is ill, often drunk and consumed by guilt. Theresa, his wife, is drawn as a simple, loving soul from a rural background.

Charlene Harris updates the character by giving her more intelligence than the script calls for.

Addison Switzer is quietly impressive as Noah, a kind-hearted bartender. At the show's climax, he delivers a fatherly speech that puts Anna on the right path and sets up the happy ending.

It's corny and contrived, but he carries it off well.

The family's home, created by Greg Mitchell, seems too designer-like for a family of working people who have to scratch for every dollar. The revolving stage reveals a more believable effort - a Brooklyn bar, appropriately dreary.

Kristina Lambdin aims for an accurate period look in the costumes and succeeds. The post-World War II Navy uniforms, though, are inaccurate in some details, and the New York City policeman's uniform is far off the mark.

Rep Stage presents "Anna Lucasta" in Smith Theatre at Howard Community College, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia, through Oct. 13. Performances are at 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. Sundays, with an added performance at 7 p.m. Oct. 10. Tickets: 410-772-4900.

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