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Milwaukee Chamber's Witty 'Thousand Words'

Feb. 21, 2012
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Thankfully, it doesn't take “a thousand words” to describe the world premiere that opened at the Broadway Theatre Center's intimate Studio Theatre on Friday. In fact, only a few will do: “brilliant,” “witty,” “well crafted” and “entertaining.” There's also the word “go,” as in, “go see this show.” Written by Wisconsin-based playwright Gwendolyn Rice, A Thousand Words is a winning collaboration between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Forward Theater Company of Madison.

Actors from both Milwaukee and Madison appear in the show, including a few well-known faces to Milwaukee audiences. They include Georgina McKee, Molly Rhode and Sarah Day.

The play focuses on the work of renowned photographer Walker Evans. Although his name may be unfamiliar, his photographs of Dust Bowl farmers in the 1930s are acclaimed for capturing the desperation and hopelessness that grasped America during the Depression. His work was groundbreaking in many ways, including his aversion to “posed” photographs. He often carried a small camera under his coat, taking photos of people when they didn't expect it.

Playwright Rice takes these facts and crafts a play that explores various facets of the human spirit. The play bounces back and forth between the 1930s and the present. Cleverly, the 1930s sequences are cued by music from the era, such as “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” In the opening 1930s sequence, Evans (Josh Aaron McCabe) is introduced to a female writer (Molly Rhode) who will accompany him on a government-sponsored trip to rural Kansas. Their goal is to support some federal propaganda. While Shirley, the writer, is caught up in the stories behind the photographs that Evans takes, he prefers to let the work speak for itself. As an artist equipped with a camera, Evans explains to Shirley that he wants viewers to interpret the photos based on their own knowledge and experiences. This theme is played out in the current-day scenes, too. A young woman (Georgina McKee) with unexpected family ties to Evans tries to tell a museum curator (Sarah Day) about “the stories behind the photos.” The older, more experienced curator is interested only in the photos. “You can keep the stories,” she tells the frustrated younger woman. Although the play is mostly a drama, sharp bits of humor appear unexpectedly to lighten the mood.

A Thousand Words
is performed under the direction of Jennifer Uphoff Gray. It continues through March 11 at the Broadway Theatre Center. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800.


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