note: entire contents copyright 1998 by Beverly Creasey
It's not often you get the chance to see Edward Albee's "The Death of Bessie Smith". Written at the same time, it was eclipsed by the more surreal and successful "Zoo Story". "Death" in fact seems more like Tennessee Williams, with its dark poetic sensuality, than it does like the caustic Albee we're used to.
The Theatre Coop at The Peabody House in Somerville has staged an evocative, thoughtful production pf Albee's flawed but nevertheless moving play about institutional racism. The play is named for "The Empress of The Blues" yet she never speaks. She does sing up a storm though! Michelle Dowd gives a breathatking performance as Bessie, even more remarkable because she's silhouetted behind a scrim; but Dowd is such a powerful presence that you believe!
It's distressing that Albee focuses on the white characters here: he gives them full lives and deep, explained torments, yet the Black characters are for the most part plucked out of their lives and plunked down into the play; we don't learn about their pasts. Director Brett Malinowski has to work against this text to balance the play, and his remarkable actors do just that: imbuing their roles with amazing depth of character.
Guy Bushfan gets to show his remarkable talents in two roles. He's one of the few actors around who know how to play a drunk without going over the top; his second triumph of the evening is a transcendant performance as the target of vicious attacks from from Marie Larkin, playing the tortured daughter of a hateful white man (Paul Farwell) who, inexplicably, turns on Bushfan. Larkin plays her like a woman possessed. Gavin Barbour portrays Larkin's love interest with an elegance and ease reminiscent of a young Henry Fonda.
Fine performances all around, including Lance Vallis as "The Guitarist" (boy, can he play the blues!), Keith Mascoll as Bessie's boyfriend, and Meagan Burrichter as the nurse who turns Mascoll away from her "white" hospital when Bessie needs the emergency room.
Malinowski's crew, including Joanne Savage's clever multi-locale set and her spunky costumes (right down to Bessie's signature flapper feathered headdress, and Mara Fishman's gorgeous filtered lights (especially in a night club, and that shadow-dance on the scrim) --- all involved give this Albee artifact its due.