Praying for Sheetrock | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Praying for Sheetrock

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PRAYING FOR SHEETROCK, Lifeline Theatre. The phrase "praying for Sheetrock" comes from one of the most moving passages in Melissa Fay Greene's 1991 award-winning book about the struggle for civil rights in rural Georgia: a black woman who stood in ice to pack shrimp into cans for 20 cents a piece until she grew too old to work prays to God for plasterboard to patch her roof. In Meryl Friedman's adaptation, Fanny Palmer's memories paint a vivid picture of the poverty in Macon County among both blacks and whites--and of the spirituality that allowed them to survive.

More specifically, Praying for Sheetrock is the story of how the community rallied around Thurnell Alston (Phillip Edward VanLear), an unemployed, uneducated man who became the county's first black commissioner. The innate poetry of Palmer's accounts and those of some of the other elders (beautifully performed by a cast with no weak links) is sometimes enough to draw us into the characters' lives. But despite the elements of classic tragedy--Alston falls from grace when, broken in spirit, he accepts a bribe--the businesslike language often makes the show feel like a documentary. There are some truly powerful moments, many amplified by Friedman's incorporation of gospel music, but too many scenes merely bombard us with information. I couldn't help thinking that a more masterful dramatist could have created a truly magnificent play.

--Gabrielle S. Kaplan

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