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StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and PlayMakers Repertory Company’s concert reading of Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Derek Goldman’s skillful stage adaptation of 94-year-old oral historian Studs Terkel’s November 2001 “Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith,” plays a poignant song on the heartstrings of Triangle theatergoers, who rose en masse at the final curtain last night to reward this powerful production with an exuberant standing ovation. Born in New York in the year the R.M.S. Titanic had its fatal encounter with an iceberg, Louis “Studs” Terkel was still reeling from the December 1999 death of his wife of 60 years, the former Ida Goldberg, when he commenced the series of interviews that became Will the Circle Be Unbroken?
The winner of the 1985 Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction for The Good War: An Oral History of World War Two, and a card-carrying agnostic, Terkel took as his subject life and death, the here and the hereafter; and many of the people whose brains he picked once soldiered or still soldier on the front lines of the eternal struggle against the inevitable.
StreetSigns co-artistic director Derek Goldman has selected 25 interviews from Terkel’s 407-page book and extracted enough comic and dramatic moments to attract a stellar cast headed by 1984 OBIE Award winner Frederick Neumann (Through the Leaves) and 2006 Academy Award nominee David Strathairn (Good Night, and Good Luck). Neumann is curmudgeon’s curmudgeon—a real pistol—as the gruff but grieving Studs, who wrestles with his agnosticism as he interviews men and women whose faith has sustained them through the most horrific ordeals imaginable. Neumann also steps out of his narrator’s role, for a brief moment, to limn the life of retired white schoolteacher Quinn Brisben, who dedicated his life to teaching mostly African-American kids.
David Strathairn, who steps into the stoplight for the first time to impersonate the seventh of 15 real-life characters in Act I, adds an indelible portrait of Dr. John Barrett, an Irish immigrant who heads the trauma unit at Cook County Hospital and stares death in the face daily—right before he has to inform terrified family members and friends that their worst nightmares have come true on the mean streets of Chicago. Strathairn also contributes crisp characterizations as Dr. Gary Slutkin, who has fought the battle against AIDS in Africa, with appallingly insufficient U.S. governmental support, and now heads the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention; Jewish Reform Rabbi Robert Marx, whose faith was sorely tested by the loss of a son; and Randy Buescher, an architect with cancer who has a horrifying dream that he is dead and his three-year-old daughter will be the one who finds his body.
Thanks to its all-star cast, Will the Circle Be Unbroken has so many memorable moments that it is impossible to find superlatives enough to give all these great actors and actresses their due. The highest points in an evening of highlights include passionate performances by Ching Valdes-Aran as Matta Kelly, a case manager trying to help a transvestite with AIDS die with dignity, and Tammy Snider, a Japanese-American survivor (hibakusha) who was a 10-year-old girl living at Ground Zero when the first atomic bomb obliterated Hiroshima and burned her mother to death; Cheryl Lynn Bruce as schoolteacher Helen Sclair and especially as Mamie Mobley, whose 14-year-old son Emmett Till was gruesomely tortured and murdered by two white Mississippians who later confessed to Look Magazine after an all-white jury acquitted them.
Keith Randolph Smith adds striking portrayals of Delbert Lee Tibbs, a former Death Row inmate, and Victor Israel Marquez, a Vietnam vet suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome; Rick Lonon contributes a poignant portrait of celebrated bluegrass singer/guitarist Dock Watson, sadly reminiscing about the untimely death of his son Merle in a tractor accident; Joan Darling gives a moving portrait as famed actress and teacher Uta Hagen, who doesn’t believe in organized religion, but says, “I do believe nobody’s really dead until nobody remembers you anymore”; and Edmund Genest, Scott Sowers, and Estes Tarver also deliver polished performances in each of their multiple roles.
The humorous, somber, and heartbreaking moments of Will the Circle Be Unbroken—surely one of the Top 10 shows of the 2006 Triangle theater season — are superbly orchestrated by StreetSigns co-artistic director Joseph Megel, who adds to his laurels as one of the Triangle’s very finest directors. Megel and musical director Terry Rhodes expertly mingle word and music, so that the inspirational songs sung by Rhodes, Richard L. Banks, Tim Sparks, and Louise Toppin, plus the UNC Gospel Choir, are a truly memorable part of an unforgettable evening. Don’t miss Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and PlayMakers Repertory Company present Will the Circle Be Unbroken Thursday-Friday, Sept. 7-8, at 8 p.m. in Memorial Hall at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. $10-$50. 919/843-3333. StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance: http://www.streetsigns.org/ [inactive 10/08]. PlayMakers Repertory Company: http://www.playmakersrep.org/. Studs Terkel: http://www.studsterkel.org/. David Strathairn: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=69905 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://imdb.com/name/nm0000657/ (Internet Movie Database). Frederick Neumann: http://www.ibdb.com/person.asp?ID=86347 (Internet Broadway Database) and http://imdb.com/name/nm0627046/ (Internet Movie Database).