Monday, May 28, 2012

Hair, Nails, Dress and People

Uprooted and the importance of human connection

By Russ Bickerstaff
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The big challenge of any stage drama is essentially the  same. The  characters need to connect up with the audience in a way that is strong enough to create a deep and powerful empathy with the story. From a certain point of view, everything else is secondary to that. Some dramas take a while to let that empathy sink-in. Caleen Sinnette Jennings' Hair, Nails & Dress finds a way to  make that connection right away. The world premiere  production of the drama with Uprooted Theatre holds onto that connection in a  way that is powerful enough to overcome the weaker points in the script. The result is one of the best dramas to be staged in Milwaukee all year. 

The play opens with  a  conversational monologue. Kim Ballou addresses the audience as  Nana--the eldest of three women living at the  same house. They are the only ones living at the house. And they're all related. 

As Nana, Ballou does an impressively casual and surprisingly effective job of drawing-in an audience. She charmingly introduces the characters before they arrive. There's a mother. There's a daughter in high school. There's a grown daughter who has moved back in to live with her. And every character holds a secret . . . a mystery. And as could be expected, these mysteries will be revealed and everyone will become closer. Okay, so it's kind of predictable and it's kind off exactly what you'd expect out of a story like this. The story almost entirely exists in exposition as one daughter talks to the next. There's a l;ot of darkness, but only through that darkness will they be able to find a closer relationship.

The thing is . . .  the script has just enough casual poetry about it to elevate another tragic family story beyond the sum of its parts. Directed by Marti Gobel, the cast of three animate the text with heartfelt performances that focus an audience's attention on the characters and NOT the plot. This is a story  about people and what their desires cause them to do . . . chance, circumstance and judgment swirl  around in a work that transcends the relatively obvious course of the plot. 

Ericka Wade  plays the mother of two daughters. She a nurse  evidently working in palliative care. Wade is a pleasure in any role, but its really satisfying to see her take on something like this. She's got a real strength about her in the role of a single mother trying to make things better for her daughters but unable to connect up with them on the right level  to really communicate. It's the kind of central role she exells at.

Mara McGhee plays the eldest of two daughters who has moved back into her mother's place for reasons she isn't comfortable  talking about. We first see her through the mess she leaves on her bed. The characterization of her that resonates through Jennings' script makes for an interesting personality that McGhee is able tobring to the stage quite effectively. 

Sola Thompson plays the youngest . . . a girl with visions of a prom that just might NOT be  able to live up to the reality she's reaching for. Her struggle may be the center metaphor for the whole drama, but there's something vaguely uneasy about the way the full reality of it is brought to the stage. Maybe her story is just a bit too intense to be simply talked about between characters. It's the kind of tragedy that begs for a more direct route to  t he stage . . . something a bit more elegant. She's going to prom with things she couldn't possibly have afforded and there's a tragedy in them that probably shoulod have  more of a novel entry into the  story than merely two sisters confiding in their mother certain undesirable truths. 

Problems with the playwright's framing aside, the drama is thoroughly satisfying because the characters come across with a kind of empathy that goes beyond the story . . . partially because the casual end of the dialogue is so well written and partially beccause Gobel brings out such good performances  in the cast. 

Uprooted Theatre's production of Hair, Nails and Dress runs through June 3rd at theIn Tandem Theatre on 628 North10th Street. For ticket reservations, visit BrownPaperTickets.com 

 

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