'Keeping Faith' keeps 'em laughing

Local playwright's comedic look at dysfunctional family life

July 23, 2008|By Mary Johnson | Mary Johnson,Special to The Sun

The Chesapeake Arts Center continues its tradition of presenting plays that are part of the annual Baltimore Playwrights Festival, now in its 27th year of showcasing local writing talent.

For the second consecutive year, CAC is offering a work by Mark Scharf, one of this area's foremost playwrights with over 40 plays produced and a former three-term chairman of the festival.

Keeping Faith is his first attempt at writing a full-length comedy, an endeavor he succeeds in by creating overly protective, anger-driven parents bungling an attempt to abduct their 18-year-old daughter on the eve of her wedding to a man more than twice her age.

Scharf has expert assistance from CAC veteran comedy director C.J. Crowe and her four-person cast, each skilled at projecting human frailties to coax our chuckles of recognition.

The creator of a space so grungy that we instinctively recoil is set designer Gary Adamsen, who presumably placed the comically incongruous framed print of Edvard Munch's The Scream over the bed. Adamsen is assisted in creating this nightmare-inducing motel by lighting designer and technical director Lauren Kolstad.

Playwright, cast and crew take us into this dingy locale to spend about two hours with a dysfunctional family, listening to their angry exchanges, and later to the strange, would-be bridegroom, to provide an enlightening and fun-filled evening.

As in last season's CAC offering of Scharf's Last Night at The Owl Bar, we rediscover this playwright's rare gift for creating strong, natural dialogue.

Convinced that he knows best what is right for his daughter, Ed arrives on stage carrying his daughter Faith over his shoulder.

Following closely behind into the Arkansas motel room is his apprehensive wife Jane, who is angry that their only child has driven them to such desperate behavior. As she inspects their lodgings, Jane becomes nearly catatonic over the grimy bathroom.

Initially we learn nothing of what the hooded, bound and gagged Faith feels about her situation. The immobile, seated figure may provide an element of drama, but it inhibits interaction among the three characters. This device does allow time to gauge the couple's relationship.

Midway through the first act, after Faith's gag is removed, the barbs fly unimpeded and the fun begins. Early signals that could be interpreted as possible abuse dissolve into a distressed father's bumbling and a doting mother's confusion. Behind their parental anger and misplaced guidance are genuine affection and concern, and beneath Faith's annoyance is habitual tolerance for their familiar concerns.

When Act 2 opens, we meet the only character with a last name, Hartsell Edward Thomas Williams IV, who has traveled all night to rescue his fiancee. As we get to know him, we begin to understand Faith's parents' aversion because this 45-year-old man seems incapable of uttering a single phrase of straight talk, preferring to deal in cryptic statements directed at Faith or threatening ones at Ed.

Marianne Angelella gives an understated portrayal of Jane that captures her vulnerability and strength and other opposing characteristics so deftly that she frequently evokes our laughter.

Holding their own are a trio of seasoned members of Crowe's "Do or Die Productions," an ideal training ground for producing spontaneous comedy. John Kelso as Hartsell creates a hero at first glance who evolves into a more complex, less admirable character. Patrick McPartlin initially projects a menacing exterior as Ed before revealing his own confusion and vulnerability. Erin Tarpley as Faith conveys a multitude of emotions silently while gagged and immobilized, then releases torrents of fury at her doting parents, who are unable to accept her as an adult.

There is time over the next two weekends to enjoy this richly rewarding comedy. Keeping Faith opens tomorrow and continues at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays through Aug. 2 at CAC's Studio Theater, 194 Hammonds Lane, Brooklyn Park. Tickets are $5 on Thursdays and $12 on Fridays and Saturdays. Information: 410-636-6597 or www.chesapeakearts.org.

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