Month: March 2017

Coyote on a Fence at Burlington County Footlighters’ 2nd Stage

When I realized Alice Weber would be directing this show, I felt glad I stopped off for that extra cup of coffee before entering the theatre. Two years ago I attended a performance of Dr. Cook’s Garden which she directed at Bridge Players Theatre Company. I still lose sleep at night trying to wrap my mind around that one. To the delight of theatre fans, Ms. Walker brought her unique brand of high minded, thought-provoking drama to Burlington County Footlighters 2nd Stage. She selected the perfect vehicle in the form of Bruce Graham’s Coyote on a Fence.

The Cinnaminson venue continued its own tradition of intense drama, as well. I didn’t believe it possible for 2nd Stage to follow-up their October presentation of ‘night Mother with a show of comparable intensity. They sure found one; and they selected the prefect director to stage it. A haunting evening of theatre resulted. I attended the opening night performance on March 24, 2017.

Coyote on a Fence told an uncomfortable story to watch. Death Row inmate John Brennan (played by Robert Beaucheane) passed his time writing for and editing the prison newspaper The Death Row Advocate. His flattering obituaries of those executed by the State neglected to mention their crimes. This apotheosis of sociopaths gained the attention of New York Times reporter Sam Fried (played by John Weber). Upon receiving the journalist’s letter informing Brennan that he’d like to meet with and write a story about him, a new prisoner entered the next cell.

White supremacist, the loquacious Bobby Reyburn, (played by AJ Krier) occupied it. While feeling no remorse for his crime, he accepted his guilt and didn’t want to appeal or delay his execution. Ironically, he developed into the more gregarious of the two men. This conflicted with Brennan’s view that he, and all those preparing for execution, were merely “accused” and had a duty to appeal their sentences. An existential debate ensued between the educated writer and the slow minded bigot. It concerned making one’s peace with God and accepting responsibility for one’s actions. Their exchanges made for a heady 90 minutes.

The playwright didn’t reveal the nature of both men’s crimes until mid-way through the show. Not knowing what each had done kept me engaged and added a sense of mystique to the drama.

Ms. Weber made outstanding casting choices for the two lead roles. Mr. Beaucheane and AJ Krier played off each other extraordinarily well. These two thespians’ complimentary skills as a dramatic team could only be compared to the aptitude of Footlighters’ comedy legends Al Krier and Dan Brothers. (Both of whom I had the pleasure of encountering in the audience prior to the show.)

It’s difficult selecting the appropriate superlatives to describe AJ Krier’s performance. He infused a sense of boyish innocence into the character. That’s not an easy achievement when continually reciting the Aryan creed. While playing an ostensible psychopath, he still drew laughter from the audience when either delivering comedic lines or imitating a seal. The man has range. He added authenticity to his role by speaking in a Southern accent. In spite of delivering myriad lines that made the audience cringe, he still evoked sympathy through his enactment.

Robert Beaucheane shares Ms. Weber’s artistic tastes. He played the title character in Dr. Cook’s Garden. For this show, he accepted the role of another complex character. He credibly played a pretentious, pseudo-intellectual, death row inmate who wrote and edited a prison newspaper. It’s difficult to animate abstract concepts such as denial, but Mr. Beaucheane established the standard for doing so. He also managed to adjust from the psyche of an austere scholar to that of someone with anger issues. His approach to the character reflected the overall play: he got me thinking. As with the role of Dr. Cook, I struggled to understand the character’s true nature.

Regina Deavitt (another cast member from Dr. Cook’s Garden) and John Weber rounded out the ensemble. Ms. Deavitt (as prison guard Shawna DuChamps) evoked sympathy for those awaiting death sentences through her moving bar-room monologs. She brought such realism to these scenes I felt like I was having a beer with her.

Mr. Weber (as Sam Fried) took on the most difficult role in the play. As a father and writer who shared many of Brennan’s views, he needed to show how the two were similar but different. Through his mannerisms, speech inflections and rational thinking he proficiently balanced curiosity and irritation in his scenes opposite Mr. Beauchane. I even jumped when he threw his wallet. Still, he kept his anger controlled.

I did have a few issues with the script. It seemed far too cliché that the playwright made the unapologetic racist a Southerner. I found that too stereotypical; especially in a play that premiered in 1997.

I also thought the story took long in developing. That’s common with ‘serious’ character driven plots. I’d encourage audience members to hang in there through the first 20 minutes of exposition. The remainder of the play made it worthwhile.

In the playbill, Ms. Weber expressed the trenchant thought:

In vivid scenes, Coyote on a Fence explores the disturbing question: Can one be innocent though proven guilty? This penetrating new drama offers no clear verdict, just utterly compelling theatre.

I always appreciate this director’s intellectually provocative contributions to South Jersey Community Theatre. I leave her shows with a broader perspective on intricate questions. I’m sure other audience members do, too. Now, is there any chance Ms. Weber would consider making a career change and become a political analyst?

Lecture Review – Joseph Grabas: Land Deeds and the Illumination of History

What genealogist wouldn’t want to know how contemporaries viewed his/her ancestors? Even better, what family researcher wouldn’t crave a source that described his forebears as either a “lunatic” or a “spinster”? How about a primary document in which a forefather bequeathed to a relative: “a good stout rope to hang his Irish wife”? These historical sleuths owe Joseph Grabas some serious gratitude. As part of the New Jersey History Speaks Lecture Series, presented by the Historical Society of Moorestown and hosted by the Moorestown Library on March 15, 2017, Mr. Grabas revealed a veritable “Holy Grail” of source material for such scholars.

It seemed fitting that such an unusual nature of information would come from an atypical type of historian. Mr. Grabas described himself as, “your premier forensic title expert.” Based on his extensive background in the subject, his self-designation seemed rather modest. For the last forty years he’s researched property records in the Garden State. He served as the president of the New Jersey Land Title Association. In addition, he founded the Grabas Institute for Continuing Education and instructs realtors, lawyers and insurance professionals on the nuances of land records. Somehow he found time to write Owning New Jersey: Historic Tales of War, Property Disputes and the Pursuit of Happiness which The History Press published in 2014, as well.

Mr. Grabas explained that historically American society placed more importance on land ownership than home ownership. His book opened with a witty observation from Mark Twain that explained why: “Buy land. They’re not making it anymore.” In fact, possession of land held such prominence that statutes require many records regarding it to be retained forever.

Historians and genealogists should rejoice. Mr. Gabas explained that a county surrogate’s documents are “land records.” A diverse array of sources qualifies as such. They include, but are not limited to: financing statements, deeds, mortgages, leases, inventories, liens and even manumission records. This source provides researchers the data needed to trace a chain of title, which details the ownership history for tracts of land. It allows investigators to determine how owners obtained the real estate in the form of deed recitals. Some documents also provide witty anecdotes for those exploring family histories. For example, a deed he displayed referred to a man named Zaccheus Dunn as a “lunatic” in five separate places. With this wealth of information among so called “land records,” it’s surprising, as Mr. Grabas commented, that genealogists tend not to consult them.

Many professional researchers tend to focus on theory when explaining their craft. Mr. Grabas got into the practical aspect of his work. Using how he would investigate when a particular building was erected as an example, he showed the group his process. In the eighteenth century insurance companies began using Sanborn Maps to evaluate the insurability of properties. The speaker used a series of these documents to confirm the old Masonic Hall on Main Street in Moorestown’s date of construction. The edifice’s cornerstone read 1914. The Sanborn Maps from the years prior to and after that date were consistent with the keystone.

Mr. Grabas described his goal to “educate and entertain” the audience upon beginning his lecture. He did indeed. (Forgive the pun.) With all the unusual things uncovered from the documents he discussed, I’ve decided to try something original. I’m adding a clause to my will instructing my executor to shred all my land records upon my death. Let future historians, genealogists and title researchers wrap their minds around what that means.

To Kill a Mockingbird at the Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ

Harper Lee crafted a unique American take on the traditional bildungsroman. The author’s powerful exploration of a young girl’s maturation through her harsh exposure to the world around her made for the timeless novel, To Kill a Mockingbird. Fortunately, for theatre fans, Christopher Sergel adapted this Pulitzer Prize winning classic for the stage. Under the direction of Matthew Weil, The Ritz Theatre Company in Haddon Township, NJ presented an extraordinary interpretation when I attended the March 3rd performance.

Due to the immense success of both the book and the film, most in the general public are already familiar with the story. This presents a challenge for theatrical companies. How does one make something so well-known still interesting and engaging to audiences? The answer: through phenomenal performances. To Kill a Mockingbird included a host of them.

Maude Atkinson (played by Nicky O’Neal) expressed the following thoughts on Atticus Finch: “The highest honor the town can give a man: the ability to do good.” The actor who played him (Cory Laslocky) didn’t “do good.” He did a phenomenal job in his performance. Mr. Laslocky did extraordinary work balancing the character’s complexities; most notably when he cross examined Mayella Ewell (played by Kaitlin Healy). He displayed a reserved easy going manner with his deliberate questioning. Through his words he became a man who could be firm and tough. He managed this difficult equilibrium throughout the entire show; his convincing portrayal of the character’s passionate closing argument serving as the lone exception.

The moment that affected me the most in Mockingbird occurred during Mr. Laslocky’s exchange with his witness Tom Robinson (played by Mikal Odom). Mr. Odom’s stage presence and delivery during this scene were without peer. I’ve never experienced a performer capturing a character’s emotional state so well. With a Southern drawl, shaky voice and teary eyes he explained the events leading to his false accusation. He brought out the character’s fear and anxiety in a way that I could feel.  If his awesome performance didn’t move you: you’re not human.

Shawn O’Brien delivered a memorable interpretation of the villain, Bob Ewell. This performer really got into character. His choice of voice, exaggerated mannerisms and yelling captured the essence of a bitter, alcoholic racist. Several times in the courtroom scenes his shouting and swigging of a bottle convinced me he became unhinged. During a later scene his evil laughing while wheedling a piece of wood even gave me a chill.

The show’s most unforgettable moment occurred during the confrontation scene. While Atticus stood guard outside the jail housing Tom Robinson an angry mob arrived. They’d planned on hanging the accused. Showing shades of Atticus, his daughter, Scout (played by Sofia DiCostanzo) did an outstanding job in her dialog with Walter Cunningham (played by Mike Lovell). Ms. DiCostanzo delivered her lines as a naïve child engaging Mr. Lovell’s (probably intoxicated) character in conversation. She recognized him as one of her classmate’s father. After asking him to say “hello” to his son for her, he bowed his head as if in shame. He calmly instructed the mob to disburse and “go home.” While it had a lot of competition for this title, these performers made the scene the play’s most powerful.

The playwright chose to utilize a technique about which I experienced mixed feelings. In following the book, the playwright had the character of Jean Louise Finch (the Scout character as an adult) narrate throughout the show. The performer who played this role, Nellie Brown, did outstanding work as a story teller. Her expressions and delivery were very expressive as she recounted the events that transpired both on and off the stage. In addition Ms. Brown spent most of the show in view of the audience. I liked how she smiled nostalgically as the action played out. I could envision her as a person reliving all these events in her mind. She possesses a pleasant voice. Ms. Brown would be a good choice to narrate an audio version of the book. Someone that gifted in the performing arts deserves a better role to exhibit her talent.

In my view, the role of Jean Louise Finch brought to mind the character of Basil Exposition from the Austin Powers films. A narrator’s role in a comedy is much more effective. The method of having a character do so in a live dramatic play stops the action too much for my taste. In a medium that’s very dialog heavy, I find it adds too much ‘telling’ to the script. In this case Ms. Brown’s exceptional story telling ability made the narrator’s role enjoyable. Besides, an actor’s role is to interpret the script as written: not to correct bad writing.

Sensitive theatre fans should be aware that the show contained usage of racial epithets. The language complimented the theme of the story and fit the less-enlightened historical time period. For these reasons I didn’t find it offensive.

The show featured a very unusual intermission. During the trial scene Judge Taylor (played by Andrew Kushner) came out from behind the bench and walked to the front of the stage. He announced there’d be a 10 minute “recess.” As he spoke the house lights came on. The players remained on the stage during the break. They continued playing the parts of courtroom observers waiting for the hearing to resume. From their gestures and facial expressions it looked like Lori A. Howard and Mike Lovell had a pretty interesting conversation going on. I would’ve liked to have heard it.

It made me very happy to see Paul Sollimo (who played Nathan and “Boo” Radley) back on stage again. When they find the person who started this unfounded rumor about his retirement, they should do to him what the drunken mob wanted to do to Tom Robinson. (Even theatre critics are guilty of ‘bad writing’ once in a while.)

So many performers did exceptional jobs in this show that it’s unfair to leave anyone out. I’d like to credit Kyle Smart, Carter Weiss, Rhonda V. Fidelia, Kaitlin Healy, Sean O’Shea, Jay Burton, Andrew Kushner, Doug Supleee, Ann Moser Trenka, Nicky O’Neal, Lori A. Howard and Natasha Truitt for their contributions, as well. The show wouldn’t have been as engaging without them.

The play reflected the life of one of it’s characters. Kind of like Boo Radley, To Kill a Mockingbird comes out of seclusion, makes a huge impact and then returns to exile for a while. Fans of great literature, theatre and acting would be well served to see it performed at The Ritz Theatre while they can. The show runs through March 19th.