13 May 2014
Racial tension and bigotry. No, this is not yet another commentary piece on Clippers basketball. I am referring to a central theme in Christie Perfetti Williams’ play An Appeal to the Woman of the House. As an unabashed history nerd, there is something about a well-written historical play that I love. In addition to writing a compelling human drama, playwrights who tackle period pieces must also understand the time period about which they are writing – there is little creative license when it comes to history. Williams has largely succeeded in capturing the tension in 1961 Alabama in this play produced by the Retro Company; however the time jumps in An Appeal to the Woman of the House sadly distract from that tension, and certain aspects of the plot are difficult to follow.
An Appeal to the Woman of the House is the tale of a troubled couple who reluctantly open the door of their farmhouse in rural Alabama to four Freedom Riders who have recently been roughed up and released from jail for exercising their right to ride on an integrated bus. The college student riders are generally resolute in their efforts to combat racism in the South, but it is clear that they are outside of their comfort zone and confronting certain truths about the dangers that remain in rural Alabama. Gideon and Rose Walker are similarly thrown into an uncomfortable situation – contending with their religious and personal convictions, which require them to help the students, and the social pressures that demand that they throw the students out to face the dark Alabama night alone. The Walkers and the students have a great deal to learn from one another, and they spend a long night together bridging the gap that divides them.
While Williams successfully develops tension among the characters and builds suspense as the Walkers and Freedom Riders face outside threats, the technique adopted by Williams to move the play forward comes across as a cop-out to telling a fully developed story. In between scenes that last only a few minutes, Williams intersperses dim-lit transitions during which the actors jump forward in time (to the playing of a clock sound, signifying the time shift). Any palpable fear or tension built-up in a scene is often dispensed with during these leaps in time, and the source of any conflict is explained away without showing the resolution on stage. This technique has the effect of continuously removing the audience from the action of the play, and makes the piece less cohesive.
In addition to the time lapses, Williams neglects several plot points that are key for character development. For example, Rose Walker has presumably recently had a miscarriage, and the play alludes to the Walker’s childlessness numerous times; however, no one ever reveals that Rose miscarried a child. I am merely extrapolating from context clues. Rose sits in her chair unweaving a small blanket. Gideon sleeps on the couch and is visibly uncomfortable around his wife. Russell Calvert, Gideon’s trashy half-brother, makes an off-hand “sorry for your loss” comment to Rose. But the characters dance around the issue rather than embracing it, despite the fact that Rose’s behavior makes more sense given her recent loss. Additionally, the impetus for Gideon’s behavior during the first half of the show is ambiguous. Gideon acts confrontational and fearful, when the Freedom Riders knock on his door. Without knowing who is outside, he is immediately up searching for his gun and bullets – ready to attack. Despite the suggestion that Gideon’s actions are a result of the fear that he has for someone, it is entirely unclear whom Gideon is afraid of. His father? His disturbing half-brother who randomly appears at his home at 3 am packing heat (what is that about, anyway)? When it comes to developing well-defined characters, motivation matters.
If there is a heart and soul of this play, it is Heather Cunningham as Rose Walker. She is, after all, the woman of the house. Cunningham’s portrayal of Rose is appropriately motherly yet Rose is also very much a woman to be reckoned with. Cunningham’s Rose has been worn down by a difficult and dull life, but she has not completely lost the spark that drives her onwards. Cunningham was an inspired choice for this role and has great emotional breadth. Another actor who leaves an indelible impression, even in his silence, is Daryl Lathon, who portrays Freedom Rider David. Lathon has a strong stage presence and conveys emotion incredibly well with subtle expressions and mannerisms. Even in his silence, he appears to have a purpose on stage, which is a respectable achievement.
Director Delisa White makes a few staging mistakes on an otherwise charming set, which strike me as amateurish – staging mistakes that do not befit her experience. Generally, actors should not sit with their backs to the audience when speaking unless there is a legitimate stylistic reason to have them do so, and if a script calls for actors to whisper on stage, conversations should be staged so as to convey the hushed conversation without actually requiring the actors to whisper. Why are these two staging points crucial? For the simple reason that the audience cannot otherwise hear the actors. I grew up with iPods, so I admittedly do not have the most remarkable hearing; however, I am quite certain that I was not the only one who spent time trying to make out the dialogue on stage when actors were faced away from the audience or were whispering.
An Appeal to the Woman of the House is an honest attempt to dramatize the cultural clashes and harrowing experiences that Freedom Riders confronted in the rural south during the early 1960’s. Moreover, the microcosm that is the Walker household is an effective setting to explore the numerous generational and geographic divides between the riders and the Walkers. However, for all of the triumphs in the plot, this play has many faults, and An Appeal to the Woman of the House is an uneven theatrical experience in totality.