CALM DOWN MOTHER
at the Halsted Theatre Centre
TWELVE ANGRY MEN
Amicus Theatre Company
at the Heartland Cafe Studio Theatre
Touchstone Theatre's two current one-acts are a study in contrast: Pearl Cleage's Hospice is dark, deliberate, and focused on one relationship, while Megan Terry's Calm Down Mother is lighter, more briskly paced, and designed almost as a series of snapshots.
Hospice, directed by Touchstone's new artistic associate, Phillip Van Lear, showcases a startling performance by Henri Boyd as the sometimes bitter, sometimes brilliant mother, Alice, who comes home to die. There she finds her feminist daughter Jenny single and pregnant and dying to hear stories from her long-estranged parent, since she's about to become a parent herself. As newcomer Lydia Stokes plays her, Jenny can be both blithe and compassionate.
Alice is the divorced wife of a charismatic civil rights leader, a woman who ran out on her husband and daughter more than 20 years before. She fled to Paris, where she established a reputation as an expatriate poet and something of a bon vivant. Left behind with her father, Jenny has nurtured fantasies about her mother's life and sees this homecoming as a way to rediscover her mother, connect with her, and perhaps experience her energy.
But what Alice wants is peace and quiet. She's an ornery, complex, and exhausted person. And she knows that her life has a more glittering appearance the further away from it she is. It's not that there haven't been adventures: it's just that they're hers. What Jenny wants, Alice has no desire to give. In fact, Alice doesn't even want to share the house with Jenny, whose baby is due any minute. So the two women struggle over territory: the actual living space they inhabit, their individual and overlapping identities, and even their vision of black womanhood.
Though the writing is often intriguing, it's Boyd who carries Hospice. Without her bravura performance, and Stokes's more understated turn, the script's holes would be damning. The main problem is that the women mostly respond to offstage events--many of them alluded to rather than explained--that have happened at some more-or-less distant time. The play is all reaction.
And there are at least two seriously distracting inconsistencies in the script. The first concerns Jenny's pregnancy. About midway through the play her labor pains become severe enough that she goes upstairs to get ready to leave for the hospital. In the bedroom preparing her overnight bag, she becomes intrigued by a bundle of her mother's letters. And from that point until the inevitable reconciliation Jenny forgets all about her pregnancy, the pains disappear, and all urgency is lost.
The other point is a matter of characterization. Cleage has Alice discuss with Jenny at least one French lover, yet she moralizes about her daughter's single-parent status. This seems not only inconsistent with her personality but hypocritical: after all, Jenny was raised by a single parent--the deserted husband. That Cleage lets this go without comment from Jenny or rationalization by Alice seems a major lapse.
The humor in Terry's Calm Down Mother, which follows Hospice, serves as an antidote of sorts. This series of connected sketches about women, their roles and relationships, is directed by Touchstone artistic associate Sandra Grand and features solid ensemble work from Julie Massey, Linda Moss, and Farrel Wilson.
The sketches themselves, impressionistic and often a little self-effacing, read like feminist primers. They're basic, even a bit obvious, but they're delivered with just enough verve and commitment. Wilson, who plays everything from a worldly prostitute to a cranky old bitch, is particularly versatile and effective.
The absence of guys in Touchstone's current production is more than made up for in Amicus Theatre Company's Twelve Angry Men. Based on Reginald Rose's award-winning 1954 TV play, this chestnut could also be retitled "Twelve White Guys Fighting and Talking Among Themselves." Although it's unlikely that a Chicago judge would ever sit before so homogeneous a jury these days, the play still resonates--and Amicus's production, directed by Scott Tomhave, is excellent. The decision to stick with the original casting, as opposed to integrating women and people of color, was a wise one. This way the workings of justice--and injustice--are much more naked.
Charged with determining the fate of a 19-year-old black delinquent who has allegedly murdered his father, the jury begins its deliberations with a clear majority of 11 in favor of a guilty verdict. (Curiously the defendant's race is never actually mentioned, though it's alluded to in the most bigoted fashion.) But Juror #8 (John Sterchi) believes there is a reasonable doubt, and he holds out until slowly but surely he convinces every other man of that doubt.
Knowing the outcome won't ruin the play, because the drama doesn't depend on that. The interest lies instead in the eighth juror's moral arguments, in the questions of probability he raises, and in the way each juror is brought to examine his own reasoning and his own morality.
These 12 men come from all walks of life. They enter the jury room with their own individual resentments and prejudices. Most are decent men, trying to make an honorable and honest decision ("A man's life is at stake!" Juror #8 reminds them), but some are not. One guy will vote any old way because he just wants to get to the White Sox game on time. Another is completely blinded by his own racism. Still another is locked into a hyperlogical mentality that prohibits reason.
Particularly solid work comes from Sterchi, Michael McNeal as the volatile juror who wants to condemn the kid, and Roy McCall as the sputtering racist. The entire cast, however, merits kudos.