by Clark Groome
Over the past two decades, Philadelphia has become one of the country’s leading regional theater cities.
The high quality of the Philadelphia theater community’s work was very apparent in the three shows I saw last week. Very different plays were given very good to excellent productions. What struck me most was the overall quality of the acting. The designer and directors also shone in the shows seen.
Here, in the order I saw them, are my thoughts about those shows:
“Under the Whaleback”
Every once in a while a play comes along that, as odd as this sounds, is both captivating and off-putting. Such is the case with Richard Bean’s profane and powerful “Under the Whaleback,” which is getting a splendid production through April 7 at the Wilma Theater.
Set in three scenes in 1965, 1972 and 2002, the play deals with the lives and deaths of men who went to the sea on ships. It is at once very funny (in the darkest possible way) and terribly tragic.
Blanka Zizka’s extraordinary production features an ensemble cast that is pitch perfect. The production is blessed with bravura turns from Pearce Bunting and Keith Conallen. The rest of the company — Ross Beschler, Gaby Bradbury, Brian Radcliffe, Ed Swidey and H. Michael Walls — is also top notch.
“Under the Whaleback” is set on Matt Saunders’ magnificent and realistic ship that takes its sailors, as well as the audience, into very choppy waters. Which is just where this play leaves me. It’s a troubling piece being given a superb production.
For tickets, call 215-546-7824 or visit www.wilmatheater.org
“A Raisin in the Sun”
Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” is one of the greatest American plays of the last half of the 20th century. Evidence of this play’s high quality is thrillingly on view at the Arden Theatre Company through April 21.
The story of the Younger family’s plans to use an inheritance to move out of an overcrowded Chicago tenement to a single-family house touches many bases. Family loyalty, the desire to get ahead, society’s prejudices, greed and honesty all come into play as the Youngers, who are black, buy in all-white Clybourne Park. Since the play takes place in what is described as “sometime between World War II and the present,” the racist response of the community into which they are moving is predictable and frightening.
Director Walter Dallas’ splendid production features the invaluable Joilet F. Harris, a Germantown resident, as Lena Younger, the family matriarch whose inheritance came from her late husband, a hard-working laborer who gave all he had to support his family.
As Walter Lee Younger, Lena’s son whose dreams overcome his common sense, U.R. (he just uses his initials) is not as strong or as convincing as his character demands. He never really seems to be the driven, self-centered egoist that Hansberry has created.
The rest of the company — especially Nikki E. Walker as Walter Lee’s wife and Leonard C. Haas as the representative of Clybourne Park’s so-called “welcoming Committee” — is very good. The Arden’s production benefits greatly from Daniel Conway’s crowded apartment set, Alison Roberts’ period costumes and F, Mitchell Dana’s moody lighting.
What stands out most, thanks to Walter Dallas, Joilet Harris et al, is just what a great play “A Raisin in the Sun” is. It is as relevant and moving today as it was when it first appeared on Broadway 53 years ago.
For tickets, call 215-922-1122 or visit www.ardentheatre.org
“The Trip to Bountiful”
Horton Foote’s gentle “The Trip to Bountiful” is a sensitive and human play about what constitutes home. This gentle play is being given a very decent production through April 7 at People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern.
Carrie Watts (the inestimable Carla Belver) has been living with her son Ludie (William Zielinski) and daughter-in-law Jessie Mae (the appropriately shrewish Teri Lamm) in a small apartment in Houston, far from Carrie and Ludie’s roots in Bountiful, a small town on the Gulf of Mexico.
Carrie wants desperately to return to Bountiful for one last visit. Jessie Mae doesn’t want her to go, primarily because she’d rather use the government pension check Carrie gets each month to go the beauty parlor and the drugstore to have Cokes with her friends.
Jessie Mae is unspeakably mean to her mother-in-law. Ludie does very little to reduce the household tensions. So it is no surprise when Carrie heads off to Bountiful, something she’s done before but has always been caught before she can get out of Houston. This time she makes it.
Her journey, her feelings and the peace, which she describes as “dignity and strength,” when she finally gets back to her beloved town are extremely moving.
Abigail Adams has directed the People’s Light production in an almost too leisurely fashion, not only capturing the nature of the piece, which is good, but on occasion dampening the real feelings the actors reveal.
For tickets, call 610-644-3500 or visit www.peopleslight.org.