Less than 1,000 Words on A THOUSAND WORDS
Initial Impressions on the Milwaukee Chamber’s World Premiere Drama
A Thousand Words is present on the stage from the moment the audience walks in to the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. A collaboration between Milwaukee Chamber Theatre and Forward Theatre Company, the Gwendolyn Rice drama has come to drape the stage in breathtaking paperboard boxes. In places, the drama is every bit as interesting as a stack of boxes. Sometimes it’s more interesting. Some times it’s less interesting. The characters outline the force of human endeavor in a script that spans a couple of hours with one intermission. The story weaves back and forth from the 1930’s to a more contemporary time. There are parallels between the characters. At some point the script comes to an end. Actors bow.
The play opens with a conversation between Sally Quinn and Roy Stryker. They’re working for a big art museum in New York. Quinn and Stryker are played by T. Stacy Hicks and Sarah Day, respectively. These are both really, really amazing actors. The characters they have been given to portray don’t really do all that much. The dialogue isn’t particularly interesting. This is a tragedy. I love both these actors and they are speaking lines that merely convey basic elements of the plot. There’s a discovery of some rare photos by acclaimed photographer Walker Evans. Quinn is looking to ollect quilts for an exhibition. They discuss the business of running an art museum. The story is every bit as interesting as it sounds. It is no more interesting than it sounds.
On another end of the story, we have Equity Actor Josh Aaron McCabe playing Walker Evans on a trek into the wilds of the impoverished Midwest with a young writer played by Molly Rhode. This is the more charming end of the script. Evans sees beauty in the common and he’s trying to make the young writer aware of that beauty. McCabe is a regional actor who has been getting a great deal of work. He’s good. He’s really good at looking like he’s charismatic without looking like he’s trying to look charismatic. It’s really difficult to get that down—kind of a weird Zen thing and McCabe does a really good job of that here, which is a hell of an accomplishment given the fact that there isn’t that much in the script for him to work with. Molly Rhode seems to be playing a character who is substantially younger than she is. That she can do that without making the performance seem at all awkward is a tremendous accomplishment on her part. That the character is a great deal of fun onstage in nearly every scene is uniquely Molly Rhode. Rhode seems to have brought touches of Judy Garland into the role—a sweet Midwestern feel to the character that’s trying to achieve something bigger than herself.
Under assignment from the federal government, Writer and photographer travel around looking to document small town life and demonstrate how the federal government was working to improve the lives of rural families. They have come to the general vicinity of the writer’s birthplace and she has become a guide. At some point, they run across an impoverished farm family. Here’s where the play resonates through its single most intense scene. It’s interesting—Gwndolyn Rice is attempting to show Evans’ understanding of the dramatic power—his ability to make the drama of everyday life visible to all by simply showing it. There’s dialogue here that shows tht she understands that. But the script almost completely fails to understand that on a functional level. There’s a plot here involving lineage and paternity and . . . really it’s all pretty extraneous. There’s a single scene between Rhode and McCabe on the farm taking some of their first pictures together.
Libby Amato is absolutely brilliant in this scene as the exhausted, impoverished rural mother interacting with photographer and writer. Amato’s performance is so brilliant here precisely because it takes the basic humanity of people living in rural poverty in the early 20th century and courageously shows it without embellishment. She’s not actually saying anything terribly profound (or really much of anything at all) but the humble weariness in her motions brings it all across so vividly that the script doesn’t need to do any more than that to have depth and power. Had Rice’s script had the guts to deliver more moments like this, it could’ve really been something. Instead we get a plot that seems desperate to go for something of more sophisticated. There’s an attempt to show the desire to get beyond cultural exploitation. Evans breezes through town and gets acclaim for showing the poverty, but what do the subjects and their descendants get? Okay, so it’s a valid point, but one does not elevate the plight of the impoverished by turning them into heroes…one elevates them by simply respecting their humanity. Evans understood that.
There’s a moment in that scene between Rhode, McCabe and Amato where Rhode’s writer is trying to assemble the family for a formal photo. Walker stalls until the family is out of the formality and into a more natural poise. Here Rice is that writer-the inspiration behind her script is stalling, waiting for those moments when the characters might seem other than they are—waiting for those moments when the characters accurately represent the spirit of the humanity they are meant to represent and not some formal plot structure that has been lamely thrust upon them. At times it works beautifully, but there is one hell of a lot of waiting around for the script to get to those moments so that they can play out.
Forward Theatre Company and Milwaukee Chamber Theatre’s production of A Thousand Words runs through March 11th at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre. For ticket reservations, call 414-291-7800 or visit Milwaukee Chamber online. A more concise (and probably much more coherent) review of the show by a different critic runs in the next Shepherd-Express.