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Capsule Stage Reviews: Ashes to Africa, The Heiress, Time of My Life, The Vagina Monologues, You Can't Take It With You

Ashes to Africa Everything from death to sexual dysfunction troubles the Henderson family. Grandma's about to kick it, Mom's overworked, Dad's got his nose in girly mags and Junior's hooked on video games. Such are the family struggles in Mark Clayton Southers's sitcom-style Ashes to Africa, now on the boards at The Ensemble Theatre. These poor women don't get any breaks. Carrying most of the burden is hardworking, tired, middle-aged Martha Henderson (Bebe Wilson). Upstairs she's got her feeble mother, who can't even walk herself to the toilet. Downstairs is Martha's teenage son Martin (Joseph Palmore), who's too busy doing nothing to give her a hand. And soon enough Isaac (Byron Jacquet), the "king" of the house, slams in from work. But before the Big Issue can come along, Grandma's got to die. After 45 minutes of setup, the issue arrives in a note left by the dead woman. The most successful child, granddaughter Marta Henderson (Jordyn Lorenz), arrives home from college and finds a poem left by her grandmother expressing a desire to be cremated and have her ashes scattered over Africa. Trouble is, as one character puts it, cremation's "not customary, not for black folk." Most of this feels patched together, and worse, some feels like a rehashing of stereotypes. But director Eileen J. Morris and her cast do about as well as any group could with Southers's script. Through May 25. 3535 Main, 713-520-0055. — LW

The Heiress Concisely adapted by Augustus and Ruth Goetz, Henry James's short psychological novel Washington Square (1880) became a successful Tony-winning Broadway play (1947) and then an equally successful Oscar-winning movie (1949). Writing of just one family — the rich Slopers of New York City's Washington Square — was unusual for James, who limited his usually sprawling canvas. Imbued with parental disapproval and the stifling effect of being plain in a world insistent upon beauty, the deceptively simple story takes on epic flavor. Despised by her father for lacking her dead mother's qualities and lovely outward appearance, shy and socially inept Catherine has become enamored of handsome wastrel Morris Townsend, who has swept her off her feet. Dr. Sloper, with a cruel honesty that borders on the sadistic, warns her that Morris only loves her money — for she has nothing whatever to offer any man. Is Morris sincere in his ardent declarations? Is the plain Catherine doomed to a life devoid of love? Directed with mounting tension by Jeannette Clift George, A.D. Players brings this snappily written play vibrantly to life. Sarah Cooksey is all fidgets and thumbs as ordinary Catherine, who, through love and love denied, is frighteningly transformed into the very thing she most abhors, her father. Marty Blair makes a most charismatic Morris, sparkling and bright as fool's gold. Lee Walker supplies the emotionally distant Dr. Sloper with a terrifying heart of ice. And Christy Watkins bustles and frets most wonderfully as busybody Aunt Lavinia. The handsome set by Mark Lewis and the eye-catching costumes by Patty Tuel Bailey add luster to this production's genuine shine. Through June 1. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

Time of My Life English playwright Sir Alan Ayckbourn is not only one of theater's most prolific writers (some 50-plus works since 1959) but also one of its most experimental and innovative. His work is complex, captivating, a little crazy, revelatory and achingly funny, as the middle class gets its nose tweaked. Don't ever pass up an Ayckbourn. In this little jewel from Company OnStage, love and marriage get dissected, but so does time. After we meet the family of six boisterously gathered to celebrate Mom's birthday at their favorite restaurant, the scenes fragment into a series of intensifying duets — and duels. The parents (Carl Masterson and Cheryl Tanner) stay in the present, full of regret and incriminations; philandering oldest son and mousey wife (Brian Heaton and Kristi Jones Pewthers) move into the future; and spoiled youngest son and girlfriend (Norm Dillon and Renata Santoro) move backward through time, until their last scene is their first meeting. Various waiters at the restaurant pop in and out, too, all lovingly played by John Patterson. The nonchronological order of the scenes lifts what appears to be mundane and ordinary into a realm of heightened sympathy and understanding. It's quite a beautiful effect, pushed even higher by the superlative Masterson and Tanner. The exquisitely shaded performances of these two pros have it all — the faded passion, nitpicking and thousand little cuts that happen as a marriage slowly bleeds to death. If you want to experience unobtrusive acting at its finest and truest, watch these two. The same could be said of Ayckbourn's intimate, yet universal, play. Through June 7. 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

The Vagina Monologues When I last saw Eve Ensler's triumphant feminist deification of "down there," a.k.a. "the Bermuda triangle," a.k.a. "cootie snatcher," the few men in the audience slouched in their seats, desperately trying not to be noticed. But theater impresario Joe Watts is just mad enough to upend expectations and put the guys right onstage — now the actors are transgendered (male to female, and female to male) or in drag. Strange as it may seem for a work whose very essence revolves around the very essence of being a woman, this reversal is an absolute revelation. This version of Ensler's power play reveals unexpected layers and plunges deeper into the psyche. It's quite a thrill. And while all this happens, we completely forget that sexy, glamorous Carmen is really Rafael Aparicio, or that peppy, preppy Stacey Meier only began hormones last year, or that Georges Zemanek, who gives a stunning knockout of a monologue about a grisly clitoridectomy, was not born with a beard. Not even Meg Ryan could out-moan Jenifer Rene Pool during her hilarious "big O" routine, and Julia Christine Oliver adds a touch of normalcy to wherever Ensler's edgy anecdotes take her. In the extremely intimate surroundings of the Montrose Counseling Center — an appropriate venue — Ensler's theme and variations have been freshly buffed and brightly burnished. A trace of five o'clock shadow and some lip gloss do wonders for Ensler's old gal. Through May 31. 401 Branard St., 713-522-2204. — DLG

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