Fortune’s Child – Mild Blue Yonder
A REVIEW BY THE BAD ORACLE
I have to hand it to Terry Cobb. He made one of the most beautiful tree projections I’ve ever seen (and if you think that sounds stupid, think about how many damned tree projections I see). When I walked into BTP on Friday night, the tree hit me right between the eyes. It looked like a gorgeous black velvet painting or one of those enamel panels you see for sale at thrift shops except it was huge. A huge, bone-white, ghost tree sitting inkily and eerily center stage. As Fortune’s Child progressed and I realized that I was in for a good solid hour and a half of looking at, hearing about, centering on and thinking about the tree (it’s a willow tree), the projection started go from richly beautiful to kind of ominous. By the end of the show, it had started to seem a little silly sitting there in all of it’s Gatsby self-importance, a bit of a crashing symbol. The tree, you see, is a metaphor for the out-of-place, growing in the face of all odds, original “cool aunt” Susan (Marianne Angelella). Susan has cancer. Susan also has a semi-religious widower brother, Mike (Lance Lewman) and a quasi-rebellious (we’re told that she acts out quite often but the wildest thing we ever see her do is open a beer for her old man) niece named Sarah. When Susan decides that she’s had enough of sitting around waiting for the cancer to kill her, she sets her mind on a trip around the world, a kind of “last hurrah”. She asks Sarah to accompany her and, since things have been getting heavy with Sarah’s puppy-doggish boyfriend, Brian (Travis Charles Hudson), she teeny bops right out of her dad’s house and joins her aunt as they ski in New Zealand, snorkel in Hawaii and ride horses through the surf in Ireland. I found Fortune’s Child a bit of a mixed bag. One the one hand, Mark Scharf, the playwright, has an unusually astute ear for genuine dialogue and parts of it were even really pretty funny, something you don’t anticipate in a cancer play. He has the capability to be quite profound (the line “One day you will be all that’s left of us” really got me). One the other, for all of his Scharf’s wit, he seemed oddly defanged. Watching this play was like looking through the Wicked Witches’ crystal ball – it presented life as it is, admirably so, but it mostly seemed to show people who are kind of sleepy. Having someone in your family die or dying shakes you up and makes you nuts. Yet, no one in this family gets really sarcastic or says anything cruel or gets mean or yells or fights or, well, seems to have any truly strong or engaging or confrontational emotions. I readily admit that the Oracle family is first at the station for Dysfunction Junction, but really? I felt like we were lacking a perspective, here. I became frustrated trying to figure out what Scharf wanted to say with all of this – here’s one example. Mike is presented as fairly religious, never missing mass on Sunday. But this fact just sort of sits there with no examination, no further study, no commentary at all. Is this an issue with Susan? Isn’t she just a little mad at God, for instance? It’s all just a little bit too easy for me. Here enter the tree. I mean, it’s not just that they talk about the tree, or that Mike cuts the tree down with an axe, or that the show begins and ends with them all standing around the tree. There are also songs about the tree on the soundtrack. There’s the giant projection of the tree. WE GET THE TREE THING. Because Scharf doesn’t seem to want to rock the boat and take a stand, it feels like he tries to artificially inject meaning into the show by hitting the audience across the face with that damned tree instead of letting it organically develop through more subtle conflict or tension. The actors are as polished and professional as you could want (though a rehearsal or two more to really nail those lines down wouldn’t have gone amiss) and, as is pointedly pointed out by director Yvonne Erickson, they should be, as they are all Equity** or Candidates for Equity* or Sleeping with Equity***** or whatever, so yes, the bar was set pretty high and they didn’t disappoint. Angelella has an assessing coolness about her that I like. Her Susan was convincingly self-deprecating, clear-eyed and stubborn. She seemed like she would have the ability to both love her family and simultaneously want to knock their heads together. I also liked Hudson’s turn as what seemed eighty different characters – he shows up as a stoic Irish stable hand, a Hawaiian stoner snorkel vendor and as Sarah’s dopey yet lovable boyfriend (he and Lewman have some nice moments of male bonding that made me grin). Erickson is an actor herself and it showed. She knows, instinctively, what works and what doesn’t work on stage and she coaxes out some moments of killer physical comedy (I loved the bit with the horses and a scene where Susan clears trash off the dining room table is hysterical).
BOTTOM LINE: Fortune’s Child is like when something really upsetting or bad happens and people stand around looking at each other saying “Oh my God, I can’t believe this is happening. This could be a play”. Well, sure, it could, and it would probably be a pretty convincing play and a real one and might even be interesting and funny at times but it wouldn’t engage us on a raw emotional level because you kind of had to be there and we weren’t. If you’re looking for something that will rip your guts out, this isn’t it. If you’re looking for something that is written well, directed expertly and performed finely, then here you have it.
Running at Baltimore Theatre Project until January 18th