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Politically Charged:

3 out of 4 stars
Thalian Hall Studio Theater
310 Chestnut Street
6/9-12 and 15-19, 8 p.m. • $14-$17


MALE BONDING: Jon Stafford, Justin Smith and Gil Johnson play lifelong buddies in Cape Fear Theatre Arts’ ‘Lady.’ Courtesy photo.

Cape Fear Theatre Arts’ sophomore effort, “Lady,” by Craig Wright, is an interesting choice as a follow up to last month’s “True West.” Both are macho shows. “True West” is an experimental, psychological drama that has a timeless quality about it, though it is set in the 1970s, the brothers and the struggle they represent could be anywhere or anytime. “Lady,” however, is about a very specific point in history and is written to be a realistic play.

The show opens with two fortysomething buddies in the woods just before dawn. Kenny (Justin Smith) and Dyson (Gil Johnson) are waiting on Graham (Jon Stafford), all of whom have been friends for 30 years. They pulled a major coup a few years ago, getting Graham elected to Congress as a Democrat in a Republican district. Kenny provided the cash and the love; Dyson, the strategy and Graham, the candidate (a slightly more mature version of Bill McKay). But that was before 9/11. Not only has the world changed, they have changed.

Graham’s depth of gratitude to his friends has shrunk, no longer does he seriously listen to Kenny, a bumbling but good-hearted everyman. Graham’s also engaged in an outright war with Dyson, whom he sees as representative of his morally corrupt opposition. As act one unfolds, Kenny and Dyson tell us their story, culminating with the revelation that as they stand in the woods, Dyson’s son is on his way to enlist in the Marine Corps. Holding Graham personally responsible for this tragic turn of events—something that mirrors similar scenes across the county—Dyson informs Kenny that he plans to kill Graham.

The cast really deserves high praise for making this show work. The script is pretty whiney and tedious, but they flesh it out and make it pulsate. All three friends for many years and all three fathers, they bring a shared feeling to the stage that is palpable. Johnson, in particular, lamenting the impending loss of his only child to something he sees as senseless and stupid—a loss that is voluntary and unnecessary—which he is powerless to prevent. It moved me to tears before intermission. It is a universal experience for teenagers to make choices with their lives which infuriate their parents and endanger themselves. But Johnson’s anguish was so raw, one couldn’t help but feel it.

Stafford has manifested Graham as a person who no longer converses with people, but rather delivers speeches. Not to say that he has been written to only speak in monologues, but rather his cadence and body language make it clear that he has become a person used to orating in Congress and at political gatherings. He shuffles dissenting views into another pile of papers. He ends thoughts and sentences as closing the subject in the way a person controlling the microphone at a forum would.

Smith’s portrayal of Kenny is heartrending. Stoned and busy with daily life—his printing business, his three girls, training his dog and the impending loss of his wife to cancer—he remembers what he calls the important things: to return phone messages and the birthdays of his family friends. He doesn’t engage in the high-minded political debates of Dyson and Graham, each of whom disregard him anyway. Still, that painful daily struggle they forget during debate is what he faces. Smith makes him truly kindhearted and likeable. He would be an easy character to lose to parody, but Smith avoids that pitfall and tries to remind us that while we may disagree, we still need each other.

As a very tall man, it can be hard to see Smith as vulnerable. It would have been an obvious and simple choice to cast him as the politician, using his height to emphasize his high-minded views. That director Dan Morris chose the less obvious path is to the audience’s benefit. The visual challenges us a bit more but makes the realism of Smith’s soft nature shine. He is instead the elephant in the room: the voters that Graham and Dyson argue about but rarely notice.

Together these three have great chemistry: they push, they pull, they swing the balance of power, and they all respond. Wright has received recognition for his writing with “Six Feet Under” and “Lost.” Not unlike “Six Feet Under,” this script is burdened with ongoing catharsis. When we left the theatre my companion, gentleman of 60-plus years turned to me and said, “That’s not the way guys talk to each other. Were it not for such great acting, this script could wear thin quickly.”

The Studio Theatre is an intimate space, consequently it requires a set that is functional but not overpowering and that holds up to close visual scrutiny. Terry Collins and Scenic Asylum created it beautifully, with gnarled and twisted tree trunks, boulders and winding paths, which allowed the actors to create violence and react to it without having to produce the corpse. The goal of a well-designed set is to enhance the production and give the actors additional tools with which to work. Scenic Asylum has come through yet again taking us into the woods of Southern Illinois on a chilly morning, away from the sweltering summer in North Carolina.

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