note: entire contents copyright 2015 by Sheila Barth
I’ve said it many times. So have other critics and theatergoers. It’s laudable for theater directors who place authenticity high on their list, to instruct their actors to affect the accent/dialect of the roles they’re playing. But when theatergoers complain during scenes, they can’t understand some lines or words because the actors’ dialect sounds “foreign” to our New England ears, it’s problematic.
It’s also sad to watch some frustrated audience members leave prematurely, which occurred Sunday afternoon at Lyric Stage’s fine production of Katori Hall’s play, “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning”. The rest of us wisely relied on this fine cast’s punctuated body language, which translates loud and clear; but we were conflicted, too, by missing key lines and words.
Hall is a brilliant playwright, originally from Memphis, Tenn., who now lives in New York. Her 2010 play, “The Mountaintop,” set the night before Martin Luther King’s assassination, won the 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play. Many of her other plays also took prestigious awards. With some strategic refining, I’m guessing “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning,” will be one more laurel gatherer.
The 2-1/2 hour play delivers a bird’s-eye view into a 1945, African-American, Memphis beauty parlor/boarding house, where some of the women are waiting for their men to return from the war. Another lost her husband in battle and must fend for herself, thus gaining independence.
During earlier interviews, Hall said some of her characters, as in her other plays, are based on her family members. Their personalities are well drawn and vibrant, their interaction natural.
Her message, which she says she wove into “the heart” of this play, is clear, too - “Be true to yourself in all its manifestations. Doesn’t mean life always works out for you, but the importance of being yourself and speaking the truth, no matter what the consequences.... we should all be so brave, even if only sometimes.”
Mac Young’s fantastic, two-level set is laden with 1940’s memorabilia, like Coca Cola sales coolers, in-house beauty salons, and a typical single women’s boarding house during World War II’s housing shortage. And Elisabetta Polito’s vintage costumes,including an Army soldier’s uniform, are wonderfully historic.
Although the plot is somewhat predictable, Director Dawn Simmons ensures the women hold our attention, dropping clues about themselves along the way. There also is a subtle undercurrent of racism Down South, during the 1940s.
The offensive “n” word flies frequently, especially in lines like, “You may be a soldier over there, but you’re nothing but a nigger here.”
Portraying Miss Mary, beauty shop-boarding house owner, Jasmine Rush has strong command of Mary’s no-nonsense, matter-of-fact, take-charge demeanor. She not only is the women’s landlady and employer, but she’s like a dormitory mom, keeping a watchful eye on them, chiding them for not going to church, breaking up sibling bickering and roommate rivalries.
Jade Guerra undergoes a total personality transformation in her role of grieving girlfriend-left-behind, Leanne, a former beauty queen, who languishes, cries buckets of tears, and stomps up and down stairs in her high heel satin slippers. For four years, she’s been wailing away, waiting daily, for the mail to bring her a letter from her beloved short-time lover, Bobby, whom she hopes to marry when he returns.
Cloteal L. Horne portrays Mabel, a sexy, promiscuous woman, waiting for her husband Joe to return, but bickers incessantly with her unglamorous, younger sister, Taffy. Meagan Dilworth as Taffy provides typical sibling rivalry, wise cracks, and comic relief throughout the play.
The women and their regular beauty salon customers, Jackie (Jackie Davis) and Dot (Ramona Lisa Alexander), exchange gossip and beauty tips, while postman Buzz (charming Keith Mascioli), who has a “bad” leg, is the news bearer. He also doubles as a salesman of new products, yet provides much more, especially to Mabel and Taffy.
Omar Robinson adds an aura of the paranormal, portraying an imaginary Bobby, Leanne’s boyfriend. An air of mystery surrounds new boarder Gladys, (talented Tasia A. Jones), from Alabama, who can read, write, and use her gloved, badly burned fingers to type rapidly on a typewriter, a phenomenon to these basically illiterate females. “That’s white work,” they cry. “You don’t talk like a colored girl...” “You’re ladylike,” Taffy adds.
Gladys’ good-girl, kindly, Bible-toting kindness, intelligence,and aspiration to become a journalist, captivates the women, especially Leanne, who offers to share her room with Gladys. As the two become close friends, Gladys miraculously coaxes Leanne out of her lethargy and depression, by committing an act of kindness that goes wrong. In an emotionally-charged scene, Gladys reveals truths to Leanne that shock her.
So, ultimately, is the actors’ dialect a show-stopper? Not really. Hall welcomes audience members into an unknown era and area, while providing nostalgia to others.