Two Giants

Fences and Talk Radio in review by Warren Francke Neither is tall, but both men tower like stage giants in starkly different roles. In Fences, John Beasley plays Troy, scarred by an abusive father and the mid-century bigotry that denied his baseball talent. In Talk Radio, Jerry Longe is far removed from his annual Scrooge role. In sunglasses and Led Zeppelin T-shirt, he’s Barry Champlain, a rock-star radio jock who abuses callers and loathes not only them but himself. Seldom does Omaha theater find two such powerful professional actors — one at his own theater in South Omaha, the other at the Blue Barn’s space in the Old Market — performing at the same time in roles so worthy of their talents. Beasley has the advantage of an August Wilson script, the 1950s slice of his 10-play cycles that sets the 20th Century black experience in Pittsburgh. But Longe, directed by Susan Clement-Toberer and supported by a cast of radio station co-workers such as Dave Wingert and Connie Lee, has an Eric Bogosian script that puts him smack in the middle of a 21st Century phenomenon: that surreal power of repulsive radio and television talkers. No, he’s not another right-wing bloviator, but he’s clearly kin to the political demagogues who sell t-shirts claiming they rule the nation (so we’ll know who to blame?). Designer Martin Scott Machitto puts Longe front and center, behind a microphone and before a glass wall that separates him from his soundman (Shane Staiger), his call screener (Gary Planck), his producer (Wingert) and his assistant/lover (Lee), with brightly-lit skyscrapers in the background. Beasley arrives in a worker’s blue coveralls, with lunch bucket in hand and a bottle of gin in his pocket. He shares the gin with longtime friend and co-worker, Bono (Carl Brooks), hugs wife Rose (TammyRa), helps his brain-damaged brother Gabe (Andre McGraw), and belittles his sons, Lyons (Raydell Cordell III) who borrows money and Cory (Dayton Rogers) whose football-playing angers his father. Playwright Wilson, whose 10-play cycle is arguably the single greatest theatrical accomplishment of the past century, again delivers richly human realism mixed with a mystical touch or two, especially at the end when Gabe tries to trumpet Troy off to heaven. Space limits require combining these two plays in a single review, but it isn’t an attempt to compare two powerful performances. Talk Radio exists in an artificial metropolitan media context, Fences in the backyard of an African-American family simply trying to make its way in the world. Both deal with men striving to succeed. Attending both on the same weekend, we found more playgoers finding their way to the Old Market than to the Q Street location of the John Beasley Theater. That may be partly explained by the fact that the JBT did Fences fairly recently, and Talk Radio played here long ago. Putting that pair of giant performances on a pedestal, it’s irresistible to contrast the two plays. Wingert, giving an effectively low-key performance as Champlain’s producer, sets the Night Talk host on edge by using a commercial break to reveal that his listeners include execs who may nationally syndicate the Cleveland show. Later, Wingert turns to the audience, as do several other characters, and compares Champlain to a train that the producer tries to run faster and faster — inevitably leading to a train wreck. Before he crashes, Champlain hopes to save America. Beasley’s Troy, on the other hand, is trying to save his job, to feed and house his family, and finally, in another inevitably hopeless effort, to defeat death. Make that Mr. Death, the man with the big sickle, as Troy puts it. You’d have to gather the best works of a bunch of great playwrights in capturing the white experience in the past century to match the Wilson plays. No one so gracefully blends humor and the harshness of life’s struggles. But there is a key point of comparison that overrides the difference between these two plays, the 100-minute no-intermission drama downtown, and the roughly two-and-a-half hour play in South Omaha: both live up to the expectation that you’re always going to get first-rate theater when the Blue Barn does serious drama and when the Beasley does August Wilson. Talk Radio runs through Oct. 17, Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. and Sun. 6 p.m. by Blue Barn Theatre in the Downtown Space, 614 S. 11th St. Tickets are $25, $20 students/seniors. Call 345.1576 or visit bluebarn.org. Fences runs through Oct. 17, Thurs.-Sat. 7:30 p.m. and Sun. 3 p.m. at John Beasley Theater in LaFern Williams Center, 3010 Q St. Tickets are $27, $22 seniors/students, all $15 on Thurs. Call 502.5767 or visit johnbeasleytheater.org.

posted at 09:28 pm
on Wednesday, October 06th, 2010

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