Port City Playwrights’ Project, Inc. currently offers “Common Place, Uncommon Encounters” at Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street. Directed by Susan Steadman, the evening blends the work of Brad Field, Charlotte Hackman, Alexander Neal, Jeremy Steadman, Susan Steadman, and Donald Wood.
During one of the now-defunct Browncoat Pub & Theatre scene showcases (a few years back) Susan Steadman offered forth a scene at a highway rest stop where a couple’s relationship hit crisis proportions in front of the custodian. “Common Place, Uncommon Encounters” takes this setting and the custodian character as a jumping off point for the playwrights to write a series of vignettes and scenes to utilize this interesting and unsettling setting.
Ken Vest portrays Judson, a cranky and aging rest-stop custodian whose life and dignity have taken him far off the track he envisioned for himself. We first meet him in Steadman’s “Baggy Boy.” The basic unwillingness of other people to take responsibility for their actions or even just treat the world around them with consideration is a source of frustration and irritation to him. But as a largely invisible man, because who notices custodians (or secretaries or wait staff for that matter?), he has a ringside seat for lives people put on display. Enter Ashley (Jamie Harwood), an aerobics instructor whose car has broken down, and her roadside knight in shining armor, Tucker (Kai Knight). She’s sexy and in distress; he is well meaning and unopposed to anything she has to offer. While their giggle-inducing encounter plays out, Brenda (Jen Ingulli) and Bob (Braxton Lathan Williams) sort through some of their own personal questions through their interactions with Judson. Williams is a great combination of man-child: taking up all the space anywhere, dropping food wrappers wantonly, and ignoring pleas of all who love him in favor of his own hedonistic desires. But in his own way he really does love and wish to protect his wife—just on his own terms.
Threaded throughout the evening as transition moments between pieces are short vignettes by Steadman, which hint at bigger stories unfolding between people. The first features two opinionated and slightly dotty little old ladies played by Megan Petersen and Anne Logan, who provide a much needed moment of comedy to break the tension of Brenda and Bob’s searching. During the course of the evening, Petersen goes from a chatty old lady to an obnoxious teenager and back with impressive range. Logan’s characters all manage to hint at a sympathy-inducing sweetness to nicely counter balance some of the evening’s more strident characters.
The works explore different aspects of what can and does happen at “rest stops.” In Donald Wood’s “Halfway,” Wanda (Lynn Ingram) and Frank (Marc Matney) replay their divorce and fight about custody (but it is not really about custody) in the regular hand off of a child. Charlotte Hackman’s “Bathroom Counseling” chronicles some mixed signals between Jen Ingulli and Kaitlyn Peterson. I’m not sure if the men in the audience realize just how realistic that scenario was, but both performers certainly understood the realistic humor and sold it.
Vest’s Judson really gets to shine in his role of an unsung hero in Brad Field’s “Rest Stop Rubbish.” He and Williams play out a bizarre ritual beginning with William’s character trying to give Judson his car, because he won’t be leaving the rest stop and therefore does not need it. The dark humor of the piece is pretty memorable, with Vest describing in great detail a family suicide who left a six-page typed note “with no typos.” Josh Drew turns in a couple of widely different performances of young men in love and desperation. His work is interesting to watch, and his struggles with young love are different enough to make each character believable. But the highlight of the evening, for me at least, was Charlotte Hackman’s “Bathroom Misunderstanding.” Lynn Ingram arrives at the rest stop dancing with her knees together, because she has to pee so badly. The women’s room is inevitably closed for cleaning, so in desperation she sneaks into the men’s room. As soon as she opened the door I had to repress the urge to call out “that’s illegal in North Carolina!” We were in a theatre, after all, not at a rodeo. But the playwright and cast were a step ahead of me. In the bathroom she encounters Marc Matney as a traveler from New Jersey who is so excited to meet a transgender person for the first time in his life. “I forgot I’m in North Carolina!” He gushes about how of course she has to use this bathroom, but that he is open minded, and—wow—her surgeon did a great job, as an increasingly embarrassed and mortified Ingram attempts to convince him that she is actually a woman.
Nickolas Fenner has designed a simple and functional set that really lets the cast play and explore some of the less enviable sides to our human experience. The writers have risen to the challenge and tie together a variety of insights at one space in which, through their differences, they manage to make the show seem whole. That the character of Judson can weave so well into the piece is a tribute to the combined work of not only the writers but also Steadman’s direction and Vest’s work as a performer. The evening is really creative, and the cast rises to the occasion to form distinct characters with relatable attributes, as well as less-than-desirable familiarities.