All Right, Call Them The Carymores

Cary Mazer's cites the star turns of the 1996-97 theater season.

By Cary Mazer


Take a look at the past year's theater season, recently honored with the third annual Barrymore awards on Oct. 20. If you look past the productions I missed or didn't bother to see (including Sylvia at the Philadelphia Theater Company, 110 in the Shade at Bristol, Paper Moon and 1776 at the Walnut Street Theatre); if you look past the productions that everyone (critics, that is) except me seemed to like (Faith Healer at the Walnut Street Studio, Avenue X at the Wilma); if you look at the productions that everyone (critics, that is) disliked as much as I did but for different reasons (Quills at the Wilma); and if you look past the productions that everyone (audiences, that is) except me seemed to like (Third and Indiana at the Arden, Cooley High at the Freedom Repertory Theatre - both, not coincidentally, adaptations from other media), you're left with a season consisting of a remarkably high number of new plays: Bunny Bunny at the Philadelphia Theatre Company, Autumn Canticle and Kemble vs. Butler at the Walnut Studio, North Seventeenth Street at Venture, Black Russian at InterAct, Arabian Nights at People's Light & Theatre, Hammers at The Independent Eye, several new and newish pieces by the American Music Theatre Festival, and Gates of Heaven and Bare Knuckle marking the swan song of the now deceased Philadelphia Festival Theatre for New Plays).

Some of these worked better than others (most notably Black Russian by Thomas Gibbons). But lest you think 1996-97 marked the year of the playwright, my memories of the season almost all involve actors and acting. And so my Critic's Picks for the past season (okay, okay, go ahead and call them the Carymores, despite my repeated objections) will skip over the deserving playwrights, designers and directors (and there are many of them), and focus instead on our remarkable community of working actors.

Several local favorites had good years - Carla Belver, Karen Hinton, Scott Greer, Frank X and Ben Lloyd (who almost stole the show in virtually every production in which he appeared: The Illusion at Cheltenham, Three in the Back, Two in the Head at InterAct, and The Tempest at People's Light). This was the year that Maggie Siff first appeared on local professional stages, instantly commanding our serious attention: first in smaller roles in The Big House's Nothing and Death of a Salesman at the Arden, then as the prodigious Thomasina in Arcadia opening the new Wilma, and then in a series of emotionally intense and peculiar roles - in Oleanna at the Walnut Studio and If at the Young Playwright's Festival.

But for me, the most interesting individual performances were in two plays that are inescapably objectionable and, arguably, completely reprehensible. Abundance, Beth Henley's play about mail-order brides in the great Northwest at People's Light, seemed to laugh off spousal abuse (or did it?), infidelity (or did it?), exploitation (or did it?) and betrayal (or did it?), the play's tone (and Abigail Adams' direction) leaving us clueless about what and how we're supposed to think about it all. But the performances of its principal quartet of actors (Edith Meeks, Mary Elizabeth Scallen, Mark Kinkaid and Peter DeLaurier) were right on the money.

And most reprehensible of all was David Mamet's Oleanna, a play that uses trumped-up campus PC issues to explore cosmic mysteries (or else uses the excuse of cosmic mysteries to be completely retrograde and paranoid about campus PC issues). I cringed at everything about the play. And yet Greg Wood, as the college professor besieged by a female student (Maggie Siff) and her demonic feminist associates, was simply brilliant: arrogant, insecure, all too sure of himself, completely unsure of himself, going on an enormous psychological journey over the course of the play before our very eyes. I'll always remember when Wood sat, defeated, in the window seat of his office, and seemed to age a decade over the course of only a few seconds. This was, hands down, the most stunning performance of the season.

Two or three other impressive productions illustrate the subtle relationship between excellent scripts and the histrionic strengths of a theater community. Tom Stoppard's Arcadia has everything: wit, ideas, mystery, romance and a view of the world that both enlightens you and ultimately leaves you transformed and speechless. And the cast at the Wilma was perfectly fine (and Maryann Urbano right on the money). The play isn't easy; but if the production (staged with loving care by Jiri Zizka) worked, it was, I suspect, as much because of the strengths of the play, not of the production. (The same might be said for Tony Kushner's Angels in America, which received an equally admirable production at Villanova, directed by James J. Christy and Harriet Power, with Laurie Norton making quite an impression as the drugged-out Mormon wife, Harper).

Compare these two productions to Terrence J. Nolen's staging of Arthur Miller's Death of a Salesman at the Arden. It is perhaps, like Hamlet, a play that one can't not do well. But the performances throughout - large and small, stellar and workaday - were, in the aggregate, so satisfying that the play simply sang. Tom McCarthy, Carla Belver, Scott Greer, Greg Wood (he did have a good year! And here he had another stunning moment framed by the set - a doorway this time - when Biff sees his father with a prostitute in a Boston hotel room), Paul Meshejian, David Ingram, and excellent newcomers like Tony Braithewaite and Hannah Dalton, were all just what the play needed. This Death of a Salesman was not only immensely satisfying; it was a tribute to a theater community that could cast such a demanding play in such depth.

Hurray for Philadelphia!