Sweet-talking drifter meets willing listener

THEATER

Arena reprises first performance to mark 50th season

Theater Column

October 10, 2002|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Arena Players has opened its 50th anniversary season with commendable revivals of two one-act plays that have historic significance to the theater.

William Saroyan's Hello Out There was the first work ever produced by the company, back when it shared quarters with physical education classes in a cottage on the campus of Coppin State College. And Alice Childress' Wine in the Wilderness is a play Arena has produced twice in its current McCulloh Street home -- in the 1970s and again in the 1980s.

Although these works take place two decades and half a continent apart, both center on a young man in turmoil and a young woman who helps bring his life into focus.

Hardly a light, or feel-good, drama, Hello Out There was a challenging piece with which to launch a new theater, and as directed here by Donald Russell Owens (who also directed Wine), the revival retains an edgy sense of danger.

Set in the 1940s, the action concerns a drifter arrested for rape in a small Texas town and the pretty, 17-year-old prison cook who befriends him. Malik Maloney portrays the prisoner as a man beaten and exhausted, but with enough malarkey left in him for a load of sweet talk. Rebecca Helm shines as the innocent young cook, hungry for sweet talk.

The unlikely pair shares a bond of loneliness and a desire to escape - he, a prison cell; she, a stifling small town. But while the cook seems to bring out a good and generous side in the prisoner, his eventual fate appears to leave her more trapped than ever.

Wine in the Wilderness is set in the more sophisticated environs of an artist's apartment in riot-torn 1964 Harlem. While gunfire and looting rage outside, an artist named Bill (Maurice Daniels) is trying to complete a triptych about African-American womanhood. The first two paintings are finished - one of a young girl and the other of an African princess.

As the model for the third, which is supposed to depict a "messed-up chick." two of Bill's friends introduce him to a woman named Tommy (played with gumption by Michelle Johnson). Lacking a formal education and rendered homeless by the riots, Tommy may appear to be what Bill is looking for - a woman who represents the wreck that society has made of the black woman.

Instead, however, she's far more self-assured and self-reliant than snooty Bill and his elitist friends. And, in a predictable turn of events, Bill winds up learning more about life from this so-called messed-up chick - whose overly symbolic full name is "Tomorrow" - than he could ever teach her.

Despite the obviousness of its plot, Childress' play offers a window on an important era when the country's racial consciousness was raised by artists and protesters alike. And like Hello Out There, it reminds us that individuals can change the destiny of not only themselves, but those around them. It's an appropriate theme to celebrate the anniversary of this community theater, which helped alter the artistic landscape of a town where opportunities for black actors were once few and far between.

Show times at Arena Players, 801 McCulloh St., are 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 20. Tickets are $15. Call 410-728-6500.

At Center Stage

Center Stage will hold its annual open house, Backstage at Center, on Oct. 19. In keeping with the season-opening production of Peter Pan, this year's highlights will include a flying demonstration, Captain Hook's Buried Treasure Hunt (featuring prizes donated by local businesses), and the ever-popular chance to learn how to make stage blood.

Admission is free, but backstage tours - scheduled for 10:15 a.m., 11 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. - may be reserved in advance by calling 410-332-0033 or e-mailing the theater at back stage@centerstage.org.

In other Center Stage-related news, resident director Tim Vasen has directed a new play off-Broadway. Keith Bunin's The World Over - a play about a man who believes himself to be the lost prince of a mythical land - opened in New York Oct. 1 and runs through Sunday. The New York Times noted Vasen's "amiable direction."

Meanwhile, associate dramaturg James Magruder's translation of Alain-Rene Lesage's Turcaret will receive a staged reading at 7:30 p.m. Monday at the Shakespeare Theatre , 450 Seventh St. N.W., Washington. The cast features Floyd King, Nancy Robinette, David Sabin and the star of Center Stage's Peter Pan, Jefferson Mays. Admission is free, but reservations are required. Call 202-547-1122.

Pulitzer plays

There's new-play news from Washington's Arena Stage as well. Three Pulitzer Prize winners are among eight play wrights who will have readings of first drafts presented in the theater's "downstairs" series, beginning Oct. 17.

Wendy Wasserstein's Mighty Myths will be read Oct. 20; Beth Henley's Exposed, Oct. 25, and Robert Schenkkan's The Marriage of Miss Hollywood and King Neptune, Oct. 26. Other playwrights whose works will be read in the series, which continues through Nov. 2, are Jerome Hairston, Rickerby Hinds, Sarah Ruhl, Annie Weisman and Craig Wright.

All readings begin at 8 p.m. and are held in the Old Vat Room at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St. S.W., Washington. Tickets are $5. For more information, call 202-488-3300.

AXIS farewell

AXIS Theatre may be no more, but the erstwhile company is holding a farewell party at the theater, 3600 Clipper Mill Road, beginning at 8 p.m. Oct. 19. An open invitation is extended to anyone "who has ever worked on or been in a show at AXIS, or anyone who liked the work that AXIS produced."

According to Brian Klaas, the former theater's artistic director, the event is strictly "BYOE (Bring Your Own Everything) as the theater is broke (and we do mean broke)."

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