Saturday, April 24, 2010

High School Actors Make Summer Brave Real

(reflections on SUMMER BRAVE by William Inge, directed by Katie Arjona for the Walker School's upper school.  Performance April 18, 2010).

In a tiny studio theatre where the audience sits within six paces of the cast, the actors must do more than speak their lines with conviction.  The characters flirting in the background are as close to us as the ones with dialogue in the foreground, and we can see in their eyes if they're in character or not.   In a production of William Inge's SUMMER BRAVE by students of the Walker School in Marietta, GA, every move was true to the character, even between the lines.

When the play begins, life is balanced and predictable in Flo's home.  Daughter Madge (Olivia Breton) is "the pretty one" and engaged to an attentive and upright young man with a bright future, Alan Seymour (Patrick McPherson);  the other daughter Millie (Casey Schreiner) resents her sister's prettiness and claims to care about books and art instead of boys.  Flo (Kiwi Lanier) is a widow focused on her girls' future marital prospects; her neighbor Mrs. Potts (portrayed by hilarious Claire Golden) is unmarried, flighty, and oblivious.  Their border Rosemary (Megan Hilburn) is a teacher maintaining a tense relationship with forty year old Howard (Jordan Perry) vague about his commitment to marry her.

A stranger upsets the balance.  Hal Carter (Justin Kasian) appears, unemployed, unattached, and unreserved.  He enters in a wife-beater tee, sweating, with an ingratiating grin. Every female on stage seems to be attracted and repelled to some degree.  There's to be a picnic that night, and, in no time, Hal has a date with the younger sister Millie, and he's flirting with the older sister Madge.  When Howard brings whiskey along for the evening, we know that this community event will be no picnic.

Inge's script is almost schematic in its pattern of contrasts, but the actors didn't settle for black and white.   During the sisters' banter, Breton and Schreiner hurled accusations at each other, but we could see that "Millie" needed some reassurance from her older sister, and Breton's eyes registered concern while her annoying sister baited her.  McPherson is supposed to be too proper, too passive, making Hal roughness and impulsiveness irresistible to Madge.  But when the two men confronted each other, Kasian showed a boyish vulnerability, while McPherson was hardly passive.  He let us see Al's mind and heart at odds, knowing that his old friend Hal is not to be trusted, while hoping that he might save Hal with the right mix of generosity and reason. 

It's been a week since I saw the show, but I haven't lost complex impressions made by the characters in key moments:

  • When the widow Flo, comforting Madge, says that a girl can be taken in by the attractiveness of a man who will ruin her life, actress Kiwi Lanier seemed to be looking into her own past, though the script never says outright that she's describing her own marriage.  
  • While inconsequential dialogue went on among other characters, Kasian's "Hal" attempted to dance with Schreiner's "Millie," but she let us see by her awkward steps and downcast eyes how her fear of being inadequate vied with her hopes of being desirable like her sister. Then Hal turned to dance with Madge, and their simple swing step turned quickly into an aggressive display, foreshadowing all that would follow.
    • One of the most intense moments of the play occurs when the whiskey flows, and schoolmarm Rosemary, having been needled by her "friends" (played by Mohini Chakravorty and Georgie Wilkins), expresses her resentments at men.  She delivers her tirade inches from Hal's face and drills into him what a useless excuse for a man he is.  Kasian hardly moved while she circled him and attacked, but his devil-may-care look hardened into grim determination.  We expected, and got, an explosion.   
      • In just a few moments, McPherson took "Seymour" from forgiveness offered to Madge, to a fistfight with Hal, to pain of loss when she rejects him, through the quick decision to change all of his plans for the future.  Yet he suppressed the character's inner turmoil to smile at others' happier endings. He was still smiling a little as he turned for his final exit, swallowing hard, eyes red. 
      • In the final scene, Breton's eyes were haunting, first rimmed in makeup smeared with tears.  She started the play as the self-composed town beauty, fascinating and untouchable to the boys in town (played by Josh Zuckerman, Alex Moyer, Matt Lewis and Myles Haslam); but the morning after her fling at the picnic, they return like a wolf pack to a dog in heat, hooting and honking their cars at her.  Breton exited stiffly, eyes staring forward, reflecting horror at what she has lost and what her future holds.
      I saw the play with a colleague of mine who has also taught young actors for decades, and she was as impressed as I by the layers of character and the quality that all the actors had of being wholly "in the moment." 

      Kudos to director Katie Arjona, who worked the actors hard to make their face - to - face interactions real.