Friday, August 09, 2013

...And The Review Is In...

Local Writer Puts Faith in World Premiere Production

By Rob Taylor (8/8/13)

Greensboro, NC—The World Premiere of a new play is tremendously exciting to be a part of. New plays have yet to go through the emotional wringer of an audience’s critical eye and even though they may have gone through readings, workshops and weeks of rehearsal, the unknowns of introducing the audience into the mix mean that you just don’t know what to expect. Things that you thought would work fall flat, moments that you weren’t sure of soar and, in the end, it’s not until that curtain goes down on an entire first run that you can really stand back and take stock. Of course you could argue that is true of any production, but with a previously unseen piece of drama the magnitudes are greater. In short, producing a new play is a thrilling and dangerous undertaking.

Local writer Bill Cissna’s All About Faith made its debut tonight in Greensboro and bravely took further steps towards the completion that only comes with full production. At times riveting, occasionally clumsy and mostly entertaining, the fortunate crowd in attendance seemed to view the production as an overall success and, indeed, the positives did outweigh the productions’ flaws.

The play takes place entirely in the office of Sylvia Adams (Kathy Anne Cissna), a psychiatrist in the Tennessee Prison for Women in Nashville. Taking place, in a dramatic conceit, over the course of a weekend, it follows Sylvia’s attempts to understand the psyche and motivations of her patient, Faith Wilson (Charis Jeffers) who talks almost exclusively in Bible verses and is imprisoned for a crime that goes unmentioned until the climax of the play. Sylvia interviews Faith and two of the most important figures in her life—husband Delbert (Rosser Lamason) and preacher Calvin Revels (Cameron Williams)—facing up to her own prejudices and assumptions as she unravels the story surrounding Faith’s crime and attempts to reach her.

The play runs approximately 100 minutes and is still in need of some trimming. Generally wellpaced and often delightfully nuanced it nonetheless feels a little bloated from time to time. Characters frequently voice conclusions that the audience should be trusted to come to themselves and a particular scene between Sylvia and her colleague Jonathan Pinckney (Michael Shapiro) discussing religious beliefs, evolution and education feels superfluous as it treads over oft-discussed theories on such matters without offering a fresh perspective. The scene ultimately sets up an idea for Sylvia as to how to reach Faith, but it’s a long way to get there. The mystery of Faith’s crime is also a problematic feature of the script, becoming apparent to the audience far too early to land the emotional impact that it could have.

The characters are, for the most part, well drawn individuals, even down to the minor role of prison guard Ophelia Washington (Ashley Lumpkin). Each gets their moment to shine within the play. Sylvia is, perhaps, the most problematic character in the play and the playwright, at times, struggles to separate her human aspects from her dramatic role as the driving force behind proceedings. Sylvia’s part produces too much emotion too early, softening the impact of her later emotional outbursts. On the flip side of the coin, Faith is layered almost perfectly within the dramatic convention of the play. Her journey to taking responsibility for her actions is beautifully constructed and emotionally devastating. The weakest of the characters is Calvin Revels who is much less interesting as a smug conman and real villain of the piece than he could have been as a more enigmatic, humble character driven by (however misguided) beliefs. Revels role borders on melodramatic by the end of the scene and, though he enables us to sympathize more with Faith by giving us a figure to hate, I’d have preferred more blurry lines and moral ambiguity.

The production itself is directed with a pleasing simplicity by Cheryl Ann Roberts. Roberts resists the urge to over direct what is in essence a simple series of interviews. She and the cast do struggle a little with the more problematic elements of the play already discussed. The telegraphing of Faith’s crime is probably as much a problem of production as of writing, for example. Nonetheless, Roberts pulls some terrific performances from her actors without overreaching or complicating proceedings too much. Stage management by Sarah “Sparkie” Sparks and sound and light tech by Chris Anderson are efficient and, as would be desired, do not intrude upon the production.

For the performances, Jeffers was a standout as Faith, delivering a really compelling performance full of nuance and emotional depth. She delivers her character’s pain at the climax of the play with such skill that it is almost tangible and is impressive in bringing subtle changes in emotional level earlier in the piece. It’s a terrific overall performance. Lamason is also very strong as Delbert. Truly sympathetic in the role, he gives us a character to root for, though Delbert’s story is more tangential to the focus of the play. Kathy Anne Cissna is a powerful stage presence as Sylvia, though she struggles to bring a needed focus to the overall character arc, starting out at too high an emotional level to leave sufficient room to develop fully. Williams is delightfully sleazy as Calvin Revels but is doesn’t quite bring the force of personality we might expect to see from a charismatic church leader. Shapiro’s performance as Jonathan is a great foil to Sylvia, bringing a relaxed enjoyment to proceedings and displaying a playful quality that counterpoints well with Sylvia’s more focused intensity. Finally Lumpkin is charming as Ophelia and brings an unexpected and pleasant family feel to the trio of prison staff members.

In terms of entertainment, All About Faith was thoroughly enjoyable and well worth checking out. With a full production behind it, I’d be very interested to see a future, perhaps streamlined, version of the play. I certainly look forward to seeing other Bill Cissna works to come.

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