Monday, August 8, 2011

Women's Theatre Project: Chitterling Heights (4 reviews)

The Women's Theatre Project opened its production of Ann Morrisett Davidon's Chitterling Heights on August 4, 2011.  This production marks the first time TWTP has produced a play with male cast members.
CHITTERLING HEIGHTS was written after Davidon spent a weekend there. The characters of Lorraine Hansberry, James Baldwin, and Bob Nemiroff are true to Davidon's understanding and knowledge of them, drawn from personal acquaintance with them and their writings.

Lorraine Hansberry's unprecedented success with A Raisin in the Sun resulted in her ongoing pursuit to produce equally monumental work.  In 1962, she invites James Baldwin to her country house, Chitterling Heights, for the weekend. Baldwin brings along a not-quite innocent Southern protégé and Hansberry is accompanied by the husband she's in the process of divorcing.  Baldwin attacks the relevance of Hansberry's latest work and the two great writers and their companions dance in a heated struggle with the roles of race, class, and literature in the turbulent 1960s.
Genie Croft directed a cast that included Karen Stephens, André L. Gainey, Kaitlyn O'Neill, and Sean Muldoon.

John Thomason reviewed for the Broward/Palm Beach New Times:
This posthumous world premiere by counterculture chronicler Ann Morrissette Davidon is an ambitious study of cultural oppression in a changing world...the racially split cast addresses just about every divide in America, as applicable now as they were then...
Although Gainey is a pitch-perfect James, Muldoon makes an unconvincing Bob, looking and sounding wooden and uncomfortable in his intimate moments with Lorraine. Stephens, on the other hand, wholly transforms into the insecure playwright, ferreting out the hidden meanings in every sarcastic quip and slowly chipping away at her character’s fragility. It’s another winning, dynamic performance to add to a pretty flawless résumé.
...this is a solid, thought-provoking new work — and a coup for the Women’s Theatre Project.
Bill Hirschman reviewed for The Miami Herald:
Karen Stephens proved over the past year in Bridge & Tunnel, Clybourne Park and Eclipsed to be one of South Florida’s strongest actresses, skilled at inhabiting a character without ever appearing to be “acting.”

But even she can’t carry a four-actor play by herself. Her unassailably admirable portrayal of playwright Lorraine Hansberry in the world premiere Chitterling Heights at The Women’s Theatre Project is not enough to overcome Ann Morrissett Davidon’s uneven script and her castmates’ lackluster, one-dimensional performances.
Director Genie Croft is blessed with Stephens’ convincing portrayal of Hansberry as a droll middle class intellectual who is alternately confident and in doubt, affectionate and ambivalent, conflicted and committed
But Croft has been unable to do much with the other members of the cast who deliver lines in the script as if, well, as if they are lines in a script.
The 2002 script is partly to blame. While it asks questions about an artist’s responsibility to social change and it limns a complex relationship for Hansberry and Nemiroff, it’s primarily a polemical procession of straightforward ideas.
Rod Stafford Hagwood wrote for The Sun-Sentinel:
The play Chitterling Heights gets a bold, brash world premiere in the performance space at The Women's Theatre Project in downtown Fort Lauderdale.
Essentially, Chitterling Heights is an ensemble piece, and Sean Muldoon as Bob and Kaitlyn O'Neill as Laura hold up their end capably. André L. Gainey as James Baldwin flashes on and off with the right mix of flamboyance and gravitas.

But it is Karen Stephens who centers the show as Hansberry. She feels like she's moving toward you even when she perches -- bristling -- on the edge of a chair, her mind racing. "I'm a demon," she informs Baldwin. "I have demons."

You get the feeling that with her push-me, pull-me personality, Hansberry's biggest fear is that if she starts slapping her husband, she'll never stop.
Ron Levitt wrote for ENV Magazine:
...the fact that male actors have finally made their debut on TWTP stage, of course, is merely a sidebar — not the main reason — to see Chitterling Heights, an extraordinary play by the late Anna Morrissett Davidon. It is having its world premiere here — starring the brilliant Karen Stephens as writer Lorraine Hansberry, along with a surprisingly strong cast including Kaitlyn O’Neill and two men — André Gainey, and Sean Muldoon.
Director Genie Croft deserves a lot of the credit for the staging and for  making this play such a wonderful  tribute to both  Hansberry and the playwright Davidon.  The direction moves this play along in a credible manner, despite its overlong first Act. Credit also goes to the spread out scenery of the country home designed by Jodi Dellaventura, the sound by David Hart, lighting by Sean Cutler, and costuming by Jenna Hoefert.
Chitterling Heights plays at The Women's Theatre Project through August 28, 2011.

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