Monday, October 27, 2003

Forest City (Cleveland Play House)

Cast and staging outstanding in CPH's 'FOREST CITY'

When you attend a play, whether at a professional or amateur theatre, do you have any idea of the process that the playwright has gone through to get that script ready for production? Many people naively believe that a person sits down at a computer and spews forth a finished product. ‘Taint so. Scribing a play is usually an arduous task which requires writing and rewriting and rewriting. The process is often for naught as, in the end, in spite of valiant efforts, the script doesn’t work. It may not succeed because it just doesn't get the authors’ ideas across, or it doesn’t look and sound right on stage, or it is too complex to stage, or the audience doesn’t respond positively.

The Cleveland Play House is presenting the world premiere of ‘FOREST CITY,’ a play by Bridgette Wimberly. How did this script come to being? If typical, Wimberly had an idea. She, worked for a period of time to get the plot clear, the lines meaningful, the characters set and the production qualities clear. Then started her real work. A script on paper is not the same as one on stage. A reader can fill in the blanks, can imagine that which is and isn’t. On stage all of these things must be made crystal clear to hold the audience’s attention and allow each listener to gain the playwright’s intentions. What is most valuable to a playwright is to have the play staged in some way that the voice of the script can be heard. This “hearing” often takes place at a staged reading in which actors take the script and create an audio version. In some cases these readings are actually staged so the author can both see and hear the script.

Fortunately for Wimberly, for the last eight years the Cleveland Play House has produced the “Next Stage Festival of New Plays.” It provides a venue to a select group of playwrights to be allowed to see, hear and hone their scripts. And so ‘FOREST CITY’ was given the opportunity to go from childhood toward maturity. As my review of that first reading indicated, I felt that the script needed a lot of work. It was very long, very wordy, unfocused, lacked texturing. The play had requisite conflicts- infidelity, financial problems, illness, big business versus the citizenry, inner family conflict. It had an interesting idea that was based on a real series of incidents. To make it a viable script, it needed some heavy rewriting.

The tinkering has been completed. ‘FOREST CITY’ is being given a full-scale production at CPH. The redoing did wonders. The play has been tightened up, shortened, extraneous materials eliminated, and humor added. Unfortunately, Wimberly has still not decided on an ending. There are at least four conclusions that could be interpreted as, “okay, this is it.” The final, final one, is not the strongest. In fact, it changes the tone of the play and makes it almost hokey. If the play is going to be produced elsewhere, Ms. Wimberly is going to have to rethink the final several scenes by asking herself what message she really wants to leave with her audience. She also needs to ask why she introduces a child character near the end whose physical presence plays no real role in the play’s meaning.

The play is set in Cleveland in the late 1960s. Carl Stokes has become the first African American mayor of a major city, segregation is finally coming to an end, the Glenville riots have brought attention to the plight of blacks in the Forest City. We see it all through the eyes of the Taylor family: JT, his wife Sandra Mae, his mother and his half brother. JT is trying to fend for his family on a railroad day-laborer’s salary. The family lives in a home they purchased, and are fighting to keep. Though not much, it is theirs. A small black-owned and operated hospital wants to expand. To do so, they will need to tear down the family’s residence. The situation is complicated by the fact that JT’s half brother is a doctor on the hospital’s staff.

Seth Gordon, who is not only the director of this production, but the Director of New Play Development at CPH, has nurtured this script from its infancy to this staging. He has created a well-paced, creatively staged, generally well-acted show. He has keyed the laughs and has stressed empathy in the right places.

The cast is universally excellent. Margaret Ford-Taylor, as Mother Taylor milks the role for all it is worth. She has excellent comic timing and builds the emotional levels with ease. Her role of “witch doctor,” family center and peacemaker are clearly developed.

Caroline S. Clay, as Sandra Mae, shows the pain of a wounded woman with much clarity. Johnny Lee Davenport gives us a JT that is both strong and weak. He clearly shows us the hard head and the soft underbelly.

Wiley Moore, as the doctor brother, could have textured his performance more. His sometimes monotone presentation and lack of facial expression makes him appear to be less than involved in the goings-on. Count Stovall, though having line problems, gives a clear picture as an old-time doctor whose dreams have been overshadowed by the times.

Scenic designer Beowulf Boritt has been forced to create a set that must reveal many settings...porch, living room, bedroom, doctor’s office, banquet hall lobby, staircase and dock. To do this he has created an impressive complex piece of work on a turntable and moving platforms. It works moderately well though the action is often slowed down by all the changes.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘FOREST CITY’ is worth seeing. As a former dramturg for the Festival, I would urge Ms. Wimberly to keep working on the script. That additional tinkering could result in a modern day “A Raisin in the Sun.”