Friday, October 21, 2011

Ladybug, Ladybug, Fly Away!

Angela Lewis, Nikiya Mathis, and Cherise Boothe in 'Milk Like Sugar'

Depending on your point of view, Milk Like Sugar, the gritty and engrossing new play by Kirsten Greenidge now in previews at Playwrights Horizons, is either an inspirational tale of potential and hope, or a cautionary tale warning us what the expression "impossible odds" really means.

Poised on a pinpoint midway between the two possibilities is Annie (Angela Lewis), an African-American teenager living in the inner city and surrounded at home, in school, and through her circle of friends by an unspoken conspiracy aimed at keeping her mired in place.

As the play opens, we encounter Annie and her friends Margie and Talisha (call her “T,” she insists) hanging out at what at first sight appears to be a hair salon, but is, in actuality, a tattoo parlor.  Annie, whose sixteenth birthday is being celebrated during a night out with the girls, has decided (or has been peer pressured) into getting her first ink.

Margie (Nikiya Mathis) and T (Cherise Boothe) sport rather large images of roses, but Annie, still clinging to her innocence, wants only a tiny ladybug, a reminder of the nickname her mother used to call her.     

While they are waiting for the tattoo artist (LeRoy McClain) to show up, the girls start talking, sipping “water” (a bottle of one of those sweet pastel-colored “alcopops” for whom teenage girls are the target consumers), and texting on their cell phones.  

For a while, it all seems lightweight and relatively harmless (depending on how you feel about the combination of teenage girls, alcoholic beverages, and tattoos).  Even as Margie and T are texting their boyfriends, the clean-cut, pony-tailed Annie is mostly waiting for her neglectful mother (Tonya Pinkins) to call from work to wish her a happy birthday.

But don’t be taken in by the lighthearted tone, for there is some serious stuff going on.  The texting, we come to realize, is more along the lines of “sexting” with various boyfriends and male acquaintances, and the girl talk turns to a pledge that all three will become pregnant at the same time—it hardly matters by whom.  For Margie, who is already “pg,” as she puts it, and for T, who is working on it, this is no joke.  They both are convinced that having a baby will give them someone cute, sweet, and cuddly to love, and raising their children together will solidify their bond.

They have already picked out a match for Annie in Malik (J. Mallory-McCree), a senior at the high school they all attend. Malik is clear-eyed enough to have a vision of himself finishing high school and getting into college, and he has no intention of getting caught in a trap that would lock him into the kind of life he has grown up in. 

He befriends Annie, though, and tries to get her to consider her own potential—something she has never really thought about before.  Annie also gets advice from a misfit classmate, Keera (Adrienne C. Moore), who is branded a loser—especially by the increasingly hardened T—but who offers Annie a vision of domesticity and inner peace through the church, another avenue Annie has never explored.

So Annie stands at a major threshold, pondering her future for perhaps the first time in her life.  How can I think of having a baby, she says, “if all I know is what I see and can touch?” 

This is an exquisitely delicate moment, one that can either open doors or slam them shut.   The tipping point is finally reached  through Annie's mother, who herself was a teenage parent with her own unfulfilled dreams, and who is now finding that the walls are closing in on her.

Milk Like Sugar  (the title refers to sweet powered milk, ubiquitous in the inner city) is a provocative play that raises many issues, and not only about the difficulties of “bootstrapping” one’s way out of a world where children like Annie are confined from birth. When the only available advice, mentoring, and support come from peers who are in the same boat, what chance does any of them have? 

The play is not without its flaws.The actresses playing the teenager girls look considerably older than their roles call for, and Kirsten Greenidge, the playwright, has tacked on an ending that attempts to maintain the tension between hope and capitulation but that truly does not fit well with all she has so carefully laid out. 

The plot also incorporates a number of clich├ęs about urban life, but Annie’s story is so significant, and the playwright’s ability to capture the language, tone, and attitude of her characters is so spot-on, that Milk Like Sugar deserves to be seen by a wide audience. 


Discount tickets Milk Like Sugar are available for readers of this blog.

Order by October 25 and use the code MILKGR
$35 (reg. $55) for Fri, Sat, and Sun evenings, Oct 21-23
$40 (reg. $55) for all other performances through Nov 20

Call: (212) 279-4200, noon to 8 pm daily

In Person: Ticket Central Box Office, 416 W. 42nd Street

Milk Like Sugar is a co-production of Playwrights Horizons, Women's Project, and La Jolla Playhouse, and is directed by Rebecca Taichman.


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Monday, October 3, 2011

'Lemon Sky,' Early Lanford Wilson Play, Gets A Mixed Production

 A Sour Reunion:  Keith Nobbs and Kevin Kilner

Playwright Lanford Wilson, who recently passed away after a most distinguished career, was considered by many to be the theatrical heir of Tennessee Williams. 

I can’t say that I fully buy into that premise. 

Wilson did have a Williams-like way of creating vulnerable characters who are filled with emotional longing. But when it comes to capturing the poetic beauty of the English language—as Williams was able to do in his masterworks from the 1940s, The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire—other names come to mind ahead of Mr. Wilson's.
One is Robert Anderson, whose play about father-son warfare, I Never Sang For My Father, was given a splendid production last year by the Keen Company, under the direction of Jonathan Silverman, who wisely allowed Anderson's marvelously-crafted words to take center stage.  It didn't hurt that the production featured multi-layered performances by veteran actors Keir Dullea and Marsha Mason. 

The Keen Company identifies its mission as one of producing “sincere plays” that are “generous in spirit and provoke identification.”  With I Never Sang For My Father, that mission was fully and most satisfactorily realized. 

Now the company and director Silverman are back with another “sincere play,” an early work by Lanford Wilson called Lemon Sky.   Unfortunately, the results are not quite so sublime, despite some standout performances, most notably from Keith Nobbs who carries the lion’s share of the play on his shoulders as Wilson’s stand-in, Alan, and Kellie Overbey as Ronnie, Alan’s stepmother.

The play presents us with Alan’s recollections of a summer-long reunion with the father who abandoned him and his mother when Alan was only five years old.  Dad had fled from the family home in Nebraska to Southern California, where he now lives with Ronnie, their two sons, and two teenage foster girls.  Still, no hard feelings, until what begins as a relatively pleasant attempt to reconnect gradually grows disturbing and ugly as secrets and lies reveal themselves.

Lemon Sky is a difficult play to bring to fruition on the stage.  For one thing, it constantly breaks the fourth wall as characters stop what they are doing in order to address the audience.  It also jumps back and forth across time between the late 1950s, when most of the action takes place, and 1970, where Alan serves as narrator of his memories of that earlier period in his life.

To hark back to the Tennessee Williams model, Lemon Sky is a “memory play.”   

When I previously wrote about last year's Roundabout Theatre production of The Glass Menagerie, I argued that what we were presented with represented Williams' memories only as these were carefully filtered through many drafts and rewrites.  We were allowed to see only what Williams wanted us to see, and not what he truly remembered.  

In a sense, Lemon Sky is more realistically memory-like; it depicts both the playwright’s recollections of a particular time in his life and the messy act of trying to recall and sort through past events.  Wilson gives us memory as it actually occurs, in a non-linear fashion with many asides and tangents.  

That’s all well and good, but it might have helped if some effort had been made to separate the time periods.   It took me a long while to figure out we were  leapfrogging across time, since nothing about the staging or lighting hinted at what was going on, and 17-year-old Alan and 30-year-old Alan looked and acted exactly the same.  

The difficulties with the storytelling are not helped by the set that is clumsily spread out across the stage of the Clurman Theatre  and a mixed bag of acting, with an unfortunate weak link in Kevin Kilner as Alan’s father, Doug, who should give us the creeps but who seems, at most, annoying. 

The most interesting character is the cheery, chirpy Ronnie (well played by Ms. Overbey), who seems to be a stereotypical Southern California ditz until we begin to see the consequences of the poor yet entrapping bargain she made for herself when she ran off with Doug. 

This production of Lemon Sky is worth the visit only if you are a Lanford Wilson fan and want to catch one of his early efforts.  I can’t fault the sincerity, but I wonder if perhaps the Keen Company and its director might do better with something more straightforward.   Another Robert Anderson play, perhaps?

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