This is one I was really looking forward to seeing. I first experienced the Ward Theatre Company in the still innocent days of August, 2016 with their signature work, I Wish You a Boat. This small but influential theatrical company was founded by Wendy Ward in New York City in 2005. Its current incarnation in a generic office park in southwest Durham is also an acting studio. They are a healthy survivor of a particularly horrible recent year in which several small, local theatre companies have ceased operations.
Revival, their latest and currently running original production, really piqued my interest, mostly based on their website plus their very attractive posters that seemed to pop up on boards all over the city. Their online description that "the production is set in Appalachia circa 1959 and is performed by ten ensemble members at a fast clip with the emotional fervor of a deep woods jamboree" had me imagining shades of Flannery O'Connor or an intimate version of "Elmer Gantry." What I failed to focus on was the subtitle, "A Cultural and Musical Collage." This is a big part of the schizophrenic aspect of this production.
The theater is essentially a large conference room, but they quite effectively made it feel as if we were in a large tent. White sheets covered all the walls and ceiling and there were exposed strings of lights that further gave it a 1950’s feel. Except for wooden fold-up chairs that each cast member used, plus one wheelchair, there were no other props or scenery. A man and woman came out and sat across from the audience, numbering about sixteen. In a darkened room with only the sound of crickets (to further replicate a hot summer night despite the actual room being so cold that blankets were provided for the audience!), the man gave a moving description of a dream of Jesus coming to his room. Great start: very evocative and it set the ambience of time and place. Then the full ensemble came out, and that is where the anachronistic problem(s) began. That magical spell was immediately shattered by the music accompanying their arrival: something between the background to "The A-Team" and bad disco. OK, well, give it a chance.
Before I go on, the actual program that was handed out needs to be addressed. Despite it being a very attractive, and probably expensive, laminated program, it had some serious deficiencies. The ensemble (Holy Rollers) was listed, but did not say which characters they played; there was a long list of "gratitude" for contributors, but nothing about who did what; it said "directed by Wendy Ward," but nothing about who wrote, choreographed, arranged the musical numbers, etc.
So, we have nine sinners attending a Big Tent Revival in early June of 1959, and this is supposed to be their stories of what they believe in, what the church means to them, and their relationships with their fellow parishioners. Unfortunately, what should have been but one aspect of this drama, nearly completely overtook, in both actual time and importance, more important niceties like character development. I am talking about the disembodied voice of Brandon Cooke as Pastor Ralph Hewitt. At least half of the eighty-minute run time consisted of his voice reciting a boilerplate sermon in an uninspired monotone while the congregants reacted with, "Amen," "Tell it," and other responses. A little of this would have gone a long way, but certainly not half the play.
The only extended revelation of any sort of dramatic conflict was a wonderfully done monologue by the woman in the wheelchair about the dysfunction of her body, as well as her disputes with her caretaker sister. The remaining Holy Rollers' individual stories were told by each of them rapping (no, really!) about them. Perhaps the creator(s) had Hamilton in mind as a precedent, but it struck me more as a comedic sketch than anything else. This was even more disappointing because the big musical number that featured a traditional spiritual with soloist and chorus was spectacular, especially considering that all but the soloist had any real vocal background.
The costumes were dead-on accurate, portraying the poverty of the rural south in the 50s, and even with minimal, or no dialogue for some, all of the actors exuded a plaintive and searching quality that makes religion the hope of a better life to those suffering in this one. It was a shame that there was not more of this, and less of the "musical collage."
The play ended with a stunningly executed interpretation of baptism. With a water-filled basin, bucket, pail, or pitcher in hand, each actor portrayed both the ecstasy and pain of being washed of their sins and becoming saved. More of this quality could have saved this production, instead of resorting to gimmickry.
Revival continues through Sunday, May 7. For more details on this production, please view the sidebar.
Wendy Ward responds to some of the questions/comments in the attached Letter to the Editor sent to CVNC on April 12, 2017.