One of the more remarkable benefits to living in Wilmington is the constant opportunity to see original works produced on stage. Port City Playwrights’ Project contributes the latest offer: “Resilience: Three Plays About Women,” directed by Susan Steadman. The evening of three one-acts runs at Big Dawg Productions’ Cape Fear Playhouse on Castle Street until May 20.
The evening begins with a winning script from the Port City Playwrights’ Project Competition: “Troop 1627” by Wesleigh Neville. It is easy to see why Neville’s script won. She unfolds the story carefully, teasing out the characters’ histories together and motivations, to create a very compelling story. Gracie (Carla Mahaffee) has arranged a reunion of old friends at a campsite. Alex (Jesslyn V. Wilson) is the first to arrive. She is clearly not happy to be there, but then who likes reunions? Gracie, the pageant princess, is playing all her haughty verbal games and Alex isn’t buying it—but she is surprised that Gracie had the gall to invite Ridley (Brandy Lowry), another former troop member who hasn’t spoken to either of them in years. When Ridley arrives, she is surprised, too. Ridley has a lot of unresolved anger about their friendship and its dissolution. All of Gracie’s verbal tricks just inflame her more. So add alcohol and it looks like every reunion of old friends anyone’s ever been to. But not quite.
These women are back together to pay tribute to two members of Troop 1627 who are not with them. They survived a tragedy at this same location that cost two friends their lives. Things are tense as the young adults try to process a tragedy from childhood and the subsequent events that spread throughout their adolescence.
Lowry’s Ridley is a pent-up ball of anger, looking for anyone to lash out at and refusing to budge an inch in her anger. Mahaffee’s Gracie is always perfectly irritating with her condensation and need for control. Somewhere in there Wilson’s Alex is floundering, genuinely unsettled and not behaving with much thought. She has become a self-defense instructor; yet, when they are approached by a strange man who walks out of the woods (Joel Zuiker), she responds with a series of mistakes that a self-defense instructor wouldn’t. What is going on? Something has gotten to her, and she isn’t thinking clearly.
Zuiker is creepy and distressing from the moment he arrives; the unwanted stranger in a closed circle. Neville has the women react as we have been brought up: to apologize for being rude and fighting in front of a stranger, rather than to put our safety first and send this creep packing. Nope, good girls are polite, even at the expense of our safety. What escalates is the stuff of nightmares. Truly, and I mean this the highest compliment to Neville and the cast, I kept the lights on and sat up in bed with the phone in my hand all night after seeing this show.
The night’s second offering is Elizabeth Gordon’s “Angels for the Innocent.” Another emotional heavy hitter, Gordon’s piece explores issues surrounding animal cruelty and factory farming. Justine (Jesslyn V. Wilson) is a young woman who has plans for the evening that do not include hanging out with her mother, Gwen (Brandy Lowry). Lowry’s Gwen is a calm, measured career politician considering a gubernatorial run. It is a huge contrast to the angry, disappointed young woman Lowry plays in “Troop 1627.” Her voice of mature authority mixes with the frustration of loving a child who is now old enough to make life-altering mistakes, from which one can’t be sheltered. Wilson argues her position in circles, and frequently loses her temper with her mother, then regroups and reminds herself this is the person who loves her most in this world. Together they model a pretty realistic depiction of the young-adult parent-child relationship.
They start to make headway when Justine’s partner in crime, Travis (Joshua Lowry), appears at the door to pick her up for the evening. Lowry’s Travis has certainty of a true believer tainted by repeated trampling in the trenches. Yet, he’s surprisingly hopeful and committed instead of cynical. Joshua Lowry’s Travis is caught between two women he admires and a cause he has given his soul to.
The three performers really take audiences on an emotional roller-coaster ride that culminates with Wilson making a sacrifice that takes blind certainty of youth. By the time she does it, the audience audibly said, “wow,” the night I attended. That doesn’t happen if the performance hasn’t laid enough ground work for us to believe the choice, and we did.
The evening ends with a laugh, though. Richard M. Trask’s “The Real Judith” brings to life events in “The Book of Judith” from “The Apocrypha,” using a very tongue-in-cheek narrative delivery that includes a chorus (Allen Crowell Jackson) apologizing for being male. That is one of the clues he gives us as to the nature of the play and twist of the storytelling we are in for. Judith (Carla Mahaffee) is a widow living with a handmaiden (Heather Murray-Price) in Bethulia. Holofernes (Joshua Lowry) and his army have amassed outside of Bethulia. They have crushed everything else on their way, and this is the last hold out against him. The stakes are high! Judith and her handmaiden hatch a plan to get into Holofernes’ camp and assassinate him. It is female empowerment in the ancient world, presented with humor and a wink.
Lowry’s Holofernes gets a laugh just for waddling on stage in his fat suit. Mahaffee and Murray-Price rather skillfully combine the seriousness of the washer women discussing existentialism in “Monty Python” with enough screwball physical humor to make even Katherine Hepburn laugh. Trask has a good rhythm for this brand of humor and dialogue that is meant more for storytelling purposes rather than great psychological exploration. It’s a fun script and accessible retelling of the story, brought to life by four performers who might be having more fun on stage than is legal. It is a great end to the evening, reminding that power comes in many forms.
Costumer Selina Harvey must have had fun making Holofernes’ garb. Though all the costumes visually enhance the production, the pieces for “The Real Judith” are most memorable for setting the time and place. Lighting and set designer Scott Davis has created a very adaptable set for these three very different locales. He uses some nice surprises to flesh out details: a camp fire and police lights are highlights.
It really is a powerful evening of theatre that explores the human experience from many different perspectives. The script development process is by nature collaborative. This is an evening where the collaboration comes together and makes something memorable.