A Simple Recipe with Complex Flavors

by China Young

Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

Roxanne Harley as Miriam. Photo courtesy of Something Something Theatre.

“This is the Story of a mother’s deepest love and most grievous pain” is printed against the striking image of a knife embedded into a bright red apple on the program cover for Something Something Theatre’s co-production with Tucson Labyrinth Project, Apples in Winter by Jennifer Fawcett. There is something sinister and foreboding, yet warmly familiar about the image, giving us a strong sense of the complexity of the material we are about to witness. Though this one-woman show, is just over an hour, it takes us into deep contemplation of a mother who has been brought to an unfamiliar kitchen to cook an apple pie for her son. We soon learn that this this apple pie, made by his mother, is the requested last meal of a man on death row who was convicted of murder. The image was not credited in the program, but I think it is a simple yet powerful summation of the intricacies this production offers.

Echoing the power of simplicity is the stark set design by Scott Berg. With a clinical color palette of greys and whites, we get the cold, industrial essence of a penitentiary kitchen. The most impressive feature is an actual working oven that is imbedded in a basic wooden frame box. The use of this practical requirement by the playwright, and execution by director Barclay Goldsmith, was cleverly orchestrated. While Miriam, played by Roxanne Harley, is constructing the pie, she tells us the history of her pie-making rituals and their relationship to her son.  But it’s not until she finally places the pie in the oven that she unveils the truth of what it has been like to be the mother of a convicted murderer. No longer able to be distracted by the use of her hands, she finds herself a prisoner of time – the time it takes to bake the pie, and the direct link that has to the time left in her son’s life. She talks about regular visits to the prison, hate mail, and so many other dark details of her experience, all as we are surrounded by the delightful aroma of the apple pie baking. It’s an interesting device that toys with our senses, keeping us tuned in sharper than the knife chained to the table.

There are so many beautiful and heart wrenching places this show takes us. Harley handles the material masterfully, though not without imperfection. She tells a story of a human experience, with a vulnerability that evokes empathy and understanding for a person with a different experience than your own…perhaps. It’s not easy to identify with the mother of a murderer, but nearly effortless to identify with a mother, or a lover of pie. I did think there were different choices that could have been made, maybe different beat shifts that could have been explored, and a deeper investigation of the full range of expression from the actor, both vocally and emotionally. Regardless, Harley gives a solid performance.

Both Something Something and The Labyrinth Project value theatre that evokes conversation, and Apples in Winter is certainly no exception. There was a post-show discussion that at least half the nearly full house stayed for. The conversation was an excellent encapsulation of the relevance of this production. Many of their responses and comments varied from my own and continue to churn my thoughts. If you have the opportunity to sit in on a post-show discussion, I highly recommend it. 

The most powerful piece of the conversation for me was learning that playwright Jennifer Fawcett drew from the book “A Mother’s Reckoning” by Sue Klebold, as her primary source material. Klebold was the mother of one of the Columbine shooters. In the 20 years since, mass shootings have become a devastatingly daily event, with parents usually being the first to be blamed for their child’s behavior. I do wish this information was included in the program, but even without that knowledge, Apples in Winter provides us the reminder that we are all human and encourages us to consider how many parents have gone through the same cycle of grief and shame that we witness with Miram. It was a rich experience and I encourage everyone to catch this one if they can.

Apples in Winter plays at The Community Players Theatre through December 15. Tickets are $5-$25. You can find more information and purchase tickets at https://www.somethingsomethingtheatre.com/.

Love, Family, and Faith in Invisible Theatre’s The Busy World is Hushed.

by Gretchen Wirges

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

The Busy World is Hushed, a play about the dynamics of family and faith, is a new production at Tucson’s Invisible Theatre. Hush, written by Keith Bunin, is the story of mother and Episcopal minister, Hannah, her newly appointed assistant Brandt, and Hannah’s son Thomas. Thomas returns home after years of chasing adventure to seek answers in his deceased father’s writing and Bible annotations in the hopes that he can unlock the secrets to his father’s death. The divide between Hannah and her son is palpable and strained from Thomas’ first, energetic entrance.

The story that follows is rife with conflict, passion, pain, and theological debate. We quickly learn about the desperate need for connection that each character seems lacking.  

The production was enjoyable, thanks to the talent of the amazing actors carrying the show.  But the direction, by guest director Nancy Davis Booth, lacked glaringly in the areas of staging and pacing. The actors’ movement was often very static, cold, and inorganic, which lead to moments of fear, anger, love, or lust that weren’t as believable as I believe they could have been. This was only further stunted by the pacing. The dialogue is fast. Too fast. The spaces between the lines, the words, and the actors are just as important to the storytelling as the lines themselves. And there weren’t many quiet moments of reflection and care that the script begged for.

Before lauding the talented cast, it must be acknowledged that the set and lighting design of the production were on point. The set was perfectly dressed and added a warmth that truly gave you the sense of being in someone’s cherished office and living space. And the lighting added a depth of ambiance and welcomed realism.

Steve Wood’s portrayal of the thoughtful, serious, emotionally shut-off Brandt is charming and yet heart-wrenching. Wood brings a subtle undertone of pain, fear, and longing to this difficult role. The character is struggling with issues surrounding being the caregiver for a gravely-ill father. The audience roots for him. I know I did. Having lost my own father, I was touched by Woods’ deft ability to tap into the love, loss, and even moments of laughter this role required. Watching Woods is always a joy. This is no exception.

The questioning son is played by John Noble. Noble’s ability to find moments of levity with physical humor and responses to the dialogue. The character’s lack of depth on the page likely lead to the lack of depth in the performance. While there were a few weighty moments that allowed Noble to experience more range in emotion, there weren’t enough of these to showcase the obvious talent of this young actor. The moments I didn’t believe him were the fault of the speed of the delivery and the misdirection, not the ability of the actor.

And Cynthia Jeffery. Cynthia. Jeffery. She is a revelation. She is a beam of light. She plays a grounded, gorgeously flesh and bone character. I believed her. I listened to her. I wanted to know more of what she had to say about pain and loss and love. Her acting is sublime. She does something that I swoon for as a director myself, she listens. She leans in to her cast-mates. She leans in to the dialogue. She leans in to the emotions. The only thing that limits her performance is a script that stifles what she, and Hannah, have to say.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Cynthia Jeffery as Hannah, John Noble as Thomas, and Steve Wood as Brandt. Photo by Tim Fuller, courtesy of The Invisible Theatre.

Hannah is set up as a scholar, counselor, and mother. Her initial dialogue is strong and confident. But by the end of the play, we hear less and less from her and more and more from her spoiled, angry son. The ending moments where we have an opportunity for reconciliation and for the punctuation of her final thoughts on pain and loss are swallowed up by her male counterpart’s summation. She says nothing of true value on this topic. She defers her pain. She defers her own discoveries about her past and about her future.

The Episcopal church began allowing women to be ordained as ministers in 1974. That’s only 44 years ago. And still women in the church encounter roadblocks to advancement, including bold-faced discrimination. This discrimination is felt by the dismissal of Hannah’s character’s thoughts and theories. It’s felt deeply. When pushed to renounce her faith, deny her studies, and reject everything she believes in to win the love of her insistent son, she shuts down and goes to bed. In my opinion, the playwright was working out his frustration with the church and, likely, his own mother. The vitriol cast on both were not confronted. Bunin intentionally stifled the primary, informed, sole female voice in this piece. And while I left The Busy World is Hushed feeling frustrated by the directing and annoyed with the story, I was excited and thrilled at the way the actors managed to shine through.

The Busy World is Hushed is playing Wednesday to Friday at 7:30 and Saturday and Sunday at 3pm through November 11th. There is an additional evening performance on Saturday Nov 10th, 7:30pm.  Tickets are $35, and can be purchased at invisibletheatre.com or by calling 822-9721.