ETA Creative Arts Foundation

George Caldwell is a proud man: the deed to his Pasadena home is displayed prominently in the foyer, and a potted cotton bush sits in the living room–both exhibited as reminders of the family’s progress. His teenage daughter Joyce Marie speaks of black pride (the play is set in the 60s), dresses in dashikis and wears an Afro, and is making plans to attend an all-black college. Only Rosie, the wife and mother, seems content with her status–a talented dressmaker, she objects when her daughter calls her a modiste. She also consistently volunteers for refreshment duty at PTA meetings and humors an eccentric neighbor. But Rosie is not without her dream–she has her heart set on Joyce Marie being crowned queen of the Los Angeles Tournament of Roses. When this hope is shattered, Rosie’s complacency and contentment vanish in a sudden burst of indignation as she realizes how others have mistreated her.

“Sudden” is an understatement. There are plenty of problems with Frances Devore Harrison’s Ring-s Around Rosie, but director Vantile Whitfield and chief actress Jennifer L. Hunt must share the blame for this ETA production, which falls inexplicably short of the company’s usual high standard.

Joyce Marie makes it evident from the start that she has no wish to be the Rose queen, so her mother’s shock appears overdue to say the least. Rosie’s breakdown may also be tied to her failure to be elected PTA president–an ambition introduced only a scene earlier, along with a flimsy explanation for Rosie’s membership in a grade-school PTA when her only offspring is about to enter college. Another problem with the script is George’s alleged drinking problem. Early on Joyce Marie remarks that her father “can’t have more than two drinks,” and at one point in the first act he swills from a pint bottle and grows angry for a sentence or two. But by act two, his daughter accepts his drinking without a word of protest, and he shows none of the effects of alcohol at all until the plot requires him to swear off the booze. There’s also the matter of a mysterious caged parrot: established by the dialogue to be a stuffed toy, it later supposedly flies away. And what about the nutty neighbor, who communicates by thrusting notes through a window on the end of a broom–what’s her story?

The most puzzling question, however, is why Harrison and Whitfield, who both have extensive experience, didn’t note these flaws long before and correct them. And though Hunt is personable enough, she doesn’t have the emotional range to suggest the passion lurking beneath Rosie’s placid exterior. Pamela Sawyer as Joyce Marie likewise gets mired in enigmatic externalization. That leaves only veteran character actor Allen Edge, who makes George an imperfect but engaging human being, to remind us of the company’s usual quality and professionalism.


Thunder Road Ensemble

at Mary-Arrchie Theatre

It’s not enough that little sister Gowdie has a boyfriend–it has to be the Love Talker, a satyrlike sorcerer whose amorous attentions lead to madness and death. It’s up to elder sister Bun to rescue Gowdie from the demon lover who, assisted by the impish Red Head, drove their mother to suicide when Gowdie was a baby. But can the virtuous Bun resist the Love Talker’s sweet words?

Playwright Deborah Pryor tells her tale of magic and mischief in suitably intoxicating language: “He touches my eyes blind,” Gowdie says, “and he folds his grape and cedar dark around me.” But it all falls short of bona fide myth. The extravagant violence and sensuality of Dionysian ecstasy can’t help but come off as slightly ludicrous–there’s lots of heavy breathing, finger sucking, screaming, hissing, and wild dashing through the woods here. And despite all the extravagance, the play seems familiar: Bun’s struggle to subdue her hysterical sister recalls the famous dining-room scene in The Miracle Worker, and Marjorie Tatum’s over-the-top portrayal of Red Head all but guarantees a major role in any remake of The Exorcist. Deborah King as Gowdie tends to coast on the euphony of Pryor’s prose rather than explore its content, and Lance Baker as the Love Talker is a bit too strong and silent for a priapic icon. But Amantha Sam May’s inventive direction and Dana Wise’s intelligent, remarkably restrained performance as Bun evidence talent.

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