Saturday, August 1, 2015

The Great Divide by Lyle Kessler


L - Adam Haas Hunter and Brandon Bales

By Joe Straw

The Elephant Theatre Company presents the World Premiere of The Great Divide by Lyle Kessler, directed by David Fofi, and Produced by Bren Coombs and Shannon McManus through August 29, 2015.

Well, it’s over.  Almost over, August 29th, 2015.  “The Great Divide” will close and The Elephant Theatre Company, in its present form, will shut their doors for good. 

Damn, but, it’s been a great run! And, I hate to say this, but, all things must come to an end.  We can shed a tear in remembrance, and rejoice for new beginnings. But, still, damn it!

David Fofi, the Artistic Director, is on to parts unknown, just him and his dog with enough energy to move on to the next adventure. I wish him the best.

The Play

This has been the second time I’ve entered the Lillian Theatre only to find a body lying somewhere near center stage.  And, but, it took me a while, sitting there, waiting for the show to start, to notice there was an actor lying motionless, on the couch.

The Body On The Couch.

Our play begins in Fishtown, Pennsylvania, along the banks of the Delaware River, in a solid working class neighborhood.

Old Man (Richard Chaves), yes that’s the character’s name, is dead on the couch.  His son Dale (Brandon Bates) is a loner, and a reticent writer who keeps his stories locked up in the house safe.  Dale is a misfit with no amorous prospects. And if it weren’t for the dead body on the couch, he’d probably still be up there writing instead of waiting for his brother to come home.  

Dale, somehow, has gotten in touch with his brother Coleman (Adam Haas Hunter) to tell him that the old man died right were he lies (pun intended). 

And when Coleman arrives, looking homeless, he enters the house with little regard to anyone alive or dead. 

He’s not clean, but he’s not filthy either, as he discards a few items off his being. His body is attenuated, shaken from a reality. He stares toward the couch - a situation that he doesn’t entirely believe.

Coleman finds that coming home is an imposition.  He doesn’t have much in common with his brother or his father; still they need to figure out what they are going to do with the body.  

Dale says he’s dead.  Not really convincing, but also, Dale’s not really that right in the head. Blame it on his mind that is overtaxed and thinking about other things.

Dale tells Coleman the tale, that he heard a gurgling sound right after Old Man ate a ham and cheese on pumpernickel sandwich. The details! And now, the Old Man hasn’t moved in two days – stiff as a board – hard as a carp. 

Coleman thinks it’s one of his tricks and asked Dale to pinch him. Dale does and that gets the Old Man to jolt up, and grab Dale in a headlock.

Coleman is not amused.

This scene presents challenges in asking us to believe that Old Man is dead.  (We as an audience know this can’t be true.  Old Man is one of the characters.)  Could this possibly play as a ruse between Old Man and Dale in order to get Coleman home?  That much is accomplished, he’s home.

As it is now Dale is not selling the product creatively, the ruse, to go all out to convince Coleman that Old Man is in fact dead.  Dale is the storyteller and has the ability to paint a dead picture. For this adjustment the scene gets everyone off the hook, the actors, and the audience, so we don’t need the excuse about playing dead for two days, which no one believes.  

Can We All Get Along?

“Who are you?  Coleman?” - Old Man

“Good to see you, Dad.” – Coleman

The air is suddenly dripping with an extreme un-comfortableness.  No one is willing to give anyone a hug ten years in the making, gone or not.  They all just inhabit the space, not knowing what to do, and talk as though they have not been out of each other’s sight.

Dale lets it slip that he is writing stories and the Old Man is not, or doesn’t seem to be too enthusiastic about it.  

But now the Old Man has got what he wanted, his boys together again.

“Sucking at my breast” – Old Man  

Okay this is a bit odd. But Old Man says their mom was dried up and they sucked at his breast until they were vibrant and happy.

Not feeling clean right about now…

“Can I take a shower?” – Coleman  

Old Man tells him nothing has changed and he can go upstairs and take the shower.

And now Old Man turns his attention to Dale.

“What about the newsstand?” – Old Man

“Closed for a death in the family.” – Dale

It’s liked something clicked in Dale’s mind as he puts on his winter wear and heads out the door to help his Old Man in the family business, a newsstand.  

Meanwhile Old Man fixes Coleman a ham and cheese on pumpernickel with a touch of dark mustard. (Those were the days.) Something for him to break the ice with Coleman on account of being gone for ten years.

Old Man confesses that he faked his death to lure Coleman back home but there’s another part of his two pronged attack.  He is concerned that Dale is spending too much time alone in his room doing nothing but writing stories.  Old man wants Coleman to get into the safe, read the stories, and see if they are any good.

“We’re together again, Coleman, we’re together, we’re a family!” – Old Man


Later Dale comes back from the newsstand and says that Aunt Millie died.  Coleman not having the least bit of sympathy for her death lets it go.

“I missed you.” – Dale

“Sorry I wasn’t in touch… I couldn’t save you” – Coleman

Coleman reveals to Dale that he was all over the place, that he was jailed for public intoxication, and that he couldn’t stay in one place. Besides he was trying to lose the Old Man.  

Coleman casually slipping into the meat of the matter asks about girlfriends, but Dale says he fought in his own way, that he wrote in his room.  Coleman then asks to read his stories but Dale says that he hasn’t been around for 10 years and now Dale feels that Coleman wants to judge him?  Dale is rather indignant about it all.

Spoken like a true Albanian, and it’s a trait in this family to fly off the handle at any given moment.  

I believe there’s more here, a creative venue that hasn’t been explored.  The brother wants something out of the relationship and it has something to do with their overbearing Dad.  But we don’t really get to the meat of the matter, the subtext that is killing both men.

Next on the agenda is baseball.  Old Man wants to go out and play with his boys and have fun like they used to. And so they leave.

L - Kimberly Alexander and Mark McClain Wilson

Someone’s Knocking At My Door

A short time later, banging on the door is Noah (Mark McClain Wilson), a one-armed character straight out of a Charles Bukowski novel and with a striking resemblance to Tom Waits to boot.  His sister Lane (Kimberly Alexander) is in tow. She looks like someone who crawled out of the 60’s intact. And she can hear voices from distant past of people singing from another dimension.   The voices can’t tell them how to get through the front door, so they find an open window and crawl through. 

Noah, tip toeing around the living room, opens his nostril wide and smells money - money, money, money. And just to even things out, on account of his missing arm, Noah carries a gun.  From here on out, things change.   

David Fofi, the director, goes out with a bang on this production. And, with the exception of the first scene not really finding its way, it is a glorious night of theatre.  

Richard Chaves fits the bill as Old Man. Old Man sees the end of his line and that scares him to death.  He wants a grandson or granddaughter.  But his miscreant sons don’t have it in them; there are no girlfriends or prospects.  The only thing Old Man can hope for is getting them out to play baseball, meeting someone, and getting lucky, for them, but especially for him.  Chaves is likeable and very peculiar in the way that he manages the character.  But the objective is simple and finding actions to achieve the objective would keep the character focused.

Adams Haas Hunter has as very good look as Coleman, a ne’er-do-well, always into trouble, and does not want the responsibility of home and family.  Yes, some people live this dream. Coleman has no visible means of support, lives off other people, and why he decides to come home at this time is not fully explored. Coleman enters the house, alone, defeated by life, his father dead on the couch and could care less about anyone.  So why is he there? Is he running from someone, or to someone? Not to pick on Hunter but I’m wondering if there are other choices to give the character another viable perspective.   

L - Kimberly Alexander, Brandon Bales, Richard Chaves

Brandon Bales does a fine job with Dale and has a very good look on stage.  It is a portrayal, almost childlike, wide-eyed and always on the lookout.  Dale is a sensitive person, extremely sensitive, part of that Albanian upbringing.  His father keeps him under wraps and Dale seems okay with that, sometimes. He doesn’t want anyone reading his stories, anyone.  That’s why he keeps it in the safe. There’s more to be had with the relationship to his brother and what he needs from him. There’s more comedy to add to this character. Also, this character may work if his emotional commitment to circumstances in his life is played in the extreme, especially in the beginning so that we are not waiting for it at the end. This is just something to add to an already fine job.

Kimberly Alexander plays Lane, the girlfriend who is infatuated with Coleman and follows him to his house.  She desperately wants him and she will do anything to entrap him into a relationship, anything.

Mark McCain Wilson plays Noah, a one-armed tough guy, with a black leather jacket held together with safety pins.  His hair is spiked and pushed up by a hair band.  And he casually parks his right thumbnail between the spaces in his lower teeth while he takes his next calculated step.  Wilson is a fantastic actor who approaches this character with all the finesse he can muster. This is a wonderful exploration of a character that thinks about the what ifs in life, despite his angry demeanor. What if he went to school? Played baseball? Had his other arm? What if?

Lyle Kessler is an extraordinary writer with characters inhabiting the fringe of life. ‘bout the nearest thing I can remark about the characters is an old southern expression like “something ain’t right in the head with these folks.”

This doesn’t mean I didn’t like this World Premier play.  I did. A lot. But whatever Great Divide separates this family would be better said, if articulated, if only briefly, rather than relying on the subtext to get an approximation of the divide.

Be that as it may, the characters are off in their own journey, Kessler never letting on, until the right time.  But, things here need a slight tweaking to get moments to move into a direction that makes sense to all of us. 

Noah is the character that worked best to my satisfaction. He is a criminal with an addiction to the truth and a smell for money. He weighs his options, but dreams his own dream, much to his detriment of this one armed bandit.  

Old Man is cagy, full of facts and fiction, and where it all leads, no one really knows just yet. One thing is genuinely true.  He wants a grandchild and it doesn’t matter how this gets done but it needs to be done.  The actions of this character would be more memorable if he was moving in that direction.

Lane is an interesting character but knowing her circumstances, her predicament, she puts an end to the Old Man’s dreams.  But dreams change, and relationships change, and one can see a relationship between her and Dale, a continuation of life, a part of a real family. Somehow I see that.

Kate Huffman plays Lane as well.  She did not perform the night I was there.

Bren Coombs and Shannon McManus were the Producers on this delightful project.

Bren Coombs also served as the photographer.

Dianna Leanne Wilson is the Stage Manager.

Shannon Simonds is also the Stage Manager.

The wonderful Set and Sound Design are by Elephant Stageworks and I am sure there are people behind this name.

Run! Run! Run!  And take someone who has been missing from your life for ten years.

Reservations:  855 – No - Forget

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