Piven Theatre Workshop

American Voices, the title given to the four short stories being staged by the Piven Theatre Workshop, is not an incorrect title. All four stories are by American writers. But the voices heard are those of adolescents and young adults struggling with their growing freedom and responsibility. Such a theme suggests that the program was designed for the young students of the workshop, and maybe it was. But the stories are staged with so much flair and ingenuity that they’re sure to engage audiences of all ages.

I’m a pushover for a well-read story, so I’m predisposed to enjoy story theater. Because the actors both portray characters and deliver the author’s narration, they must maintain a dual perspective–they’re in the story as characters, but they’re also outside of it, commenting on their own action.

In “Sucker,” by Carson McCullers, the story is told in the first person by Pete, a 16-year-old who describes how mean he has been to his 12-year-old cousin, who has lived with Pete’s family since infancy. The younger boy, known as Sucker, got his nickname by being trusting and gullible. “Once, a couple of years ago, I told him that if he’d jump off our garage with an umbrella, it would act as a parachute and he wouldn’t fall hard,” says Pete. “He did it and busted his knee. . . . And the funny thing was that no matter how many times he got fooled, he would still believe me.”

Sucker idolizes Pete and cheerfully endures the contempt of his older “brother.” But then Pete becomes infatuated with Maybelle Watts and frets constantly about her unpredictable behavior toward him. Pete starts treating Sucker worse than ever, and the younger boy withdraws into a hard, bitter isolation.

This would be an engaging story even if read by a single actor standing at a lectern, but story theater, when done as well as this, enriches the narrative. For example, when Thom Vernon, as Pete, describes the changes taking place in Sucker, Thomas Greene V, who plays the younger boy, changes his body language and facial expression. “Sucker has grown faster than any boy I ever saw,” Pete says. “He’s about as tall as I am, and his bones have gotten heavier and bigger.” As he says this, Greene actually seems to get bigger. His tentative, boyish demeanor vanishes and is replaced by the sullen swagger of a teenager who has just developed an inner life. Polly Noonan performs a similar feat as the coquettish Maybelle. Slim, blond, and winsome, she seems surrounded by a magnetic field that attracts teenage boys. But Noonan also endows Maybelle with the contemptuous air of a tease who can’t believe how submissive boys can be.

The actors in the two other stories that round out the first half of the program all deftly capture the tone set by the author. “Lily Daw and the Three Ladies,” by Eudora Welty, is about a mentally handicapped young woman who refuses to go to the institution selected by her three guardians. Instead, Lily says she’s getting married to a man in a red coat who “took little sticks and went ping-pong! ding-dong!” The women decide she’s referring to the xylophone player in a traveling band, and they’re horrified by the possibility that the man molested Lily before catching a train out of town. They set out to protect Lily from further harm, but they’re caught up short by the surprise ending.

“The White Circle,” by John Bell Clayton, is about a young man named Tucker who, for his 12th birthday, requests custody of a beloved apple tree. When he discovers the local bully stealing the 13 apples on the tree, Tucker seeks revenge. Thom Vernon, who appears in all three of the stories in the first half, gives an extremely hyperactive performance as Tucker, capturing perfectly the impetuous energy of the boy.

These three stories are simple but strong on plot and character, which makes them ideal for story theater. “Sonny’s Blues,” by James Baldwin, which made up the second half of the program, is far more complex. Flashbacks complicate the narrative flow, and the narrator, a schoolteacher identified only as Brother, is given to lyrical meditations. Yet this story, directed by Byrne Piven, benefits the most from the story-theater format.

“Sonny’s Blues” is about a young man who, despite the objections of his older brother, sets out to become a jazz musician. Along the way, Sonny, played by Thomas Greene V, also becomes a drug addict, which only confirms his brother’s fears. “I had always put jazz musicians in a class with what Daddy called “good-time’ people,” says Brother, played by Brian St. John Jr.

But at the end of the story Brother goes to hear Sonny play the piano and hears the younger man’s anguish in the music. “I heard what he had gone through and would continue to go through until he came to rest in earth,” Brother says. “He had made it his: that long line, of which we knew only Mama and Daddy. And he was giving it back, as everything must be given back, so that, passing through death, it can live forever.”

As he meditates on Sonny’s music, the piano music on the sound track seemed to become deeper and more emotional. That is what story theater does best–it brings the author’s intent into bold relief. With American Voices, the Piven Workshop puts its techniques to masterful use.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Helene Rosanove.