Capsule Stage Reviews: The Beams Are Creaking, First Baptist of Ivy Gap, The Foreigner, Magdalene, The Unexpected Man

The Beams Are Creaking The life of German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Hitler and paid for his resistance with his life, is so full of drama that his story should be a natural for the theater. Just the basic facts would fill a play threefold: an international man of God, whose influence ranged from America throughout Europe, stands up to the very face of evil, joins the underground spy network, plans the assassination of Hitler, is caught and dies a martyr to the cause of good people doing their best in times of unspeakable horror. Yet Douglas Anderson's The Beams Are Creaking — named for the secret code for the assassination attempt — which receives an atmospheric physical production from A.D. Players and is wonderfully played, is exceedingly plodding and, yes, very much a dull, monotonous exercise. While Anderson's drama touches upon the highlights of Bonhoeffer's amazing career, the play has no life in it. Never do we have a sense of what drives intellectual Bonhoeffer to these heroic deeds. We never get a true picture of the man, whose life was so rich in particulars. We see him at first as an incredulous, apolitical man of God, thoroughly debunking the idea that someone of Hitler's kind would rise to power. Scenes of deep dramatic power creep by in vignette style (his famous confrontational radio speech about Hitler's misuse of power, which was cut off the air mid-speech by the Nazis, goes nowhere), as if Anderson has a duty to include these pivotal episodes, but doesn't see fit to dramatize them. And the scenes that explain the Abwehr, the German intelligence unit akin to our CIA, are clumsy and gloss over exactly how this organization was used as the base by the resistance. It's all perfunctory, as is the handling of Bonhoeffer himself. Kevin Dean, always an actor of quiet conviction and depth, has no one to play. He's a good man throughout, but without much of a heartbeat. He's rather bland, which the fiery Bonhoeffer definitely was not. Through June 10. 2710 W. Alabama, 713-526-2721. — DLG

First Baptist of Ivy Gap Six women of varying ages roll bandages in 1945 as part of the war effort, and exchange badinage as well as bandages. We also see them 25 years later, as secrets and life choices are revealed. Some vibrant performances and experienced acting help along this sweetly sentimental parable about reconciliation and forgiveness. The setting is a hall at the First Baptist Church of Ivy Gap, where Olene (Amesti Reioux) dreams of Hollywood and Mae Ellen (Renea Been) of Nashville. They provide youthful vitality, and a sense of rebellion against the small-mindedness of a small town. Edith (Nora Hahn) has organized the war effort — Hahn is highly effective in creating a fully developed and likable character. Luby (Kristi Nicholson) looks dour for most of the play and has plot reasons for this. Vera (Carol Davis) is a straight-backed Baptist, but her judgmental nature is softened by Act Two. Sammy (Keitha Mae Hanks) is the youngest. Act Two takes place 25 years later, and there is a lot more humor here, as the tender seeds of plot planted in Act One are resolved, though we are dealing with saplings, not mighty oaks. Playwright Ron Osborne has chosen to give us narrative, not insights, and has crafted a play with predictable elements. The work is directed by Doris Merten, and she has elected to stage the rolling of bandages at a leisurely pace. This is not a play for those who crave sophisticated theater or care to witness the dark grapplings of humanity, but it provides entertainment for those who prefer theater lite. The play may be sparse on plot, but it captures the mood of a small town, and some talented actors generate fun onstage. Through May 12. Theatre Suburbia, 4106 Way Out West Dr., 713-682-3525. — JJT

The Foreigner Larry Shue's sweet backwoods comedy (1983), a staple of regional theaters, receives an equally sweet rendition at Company OnStage. Shy, profoundly boring Englishman Charlie (David James Barron), a dear friend of U.K. staff sergeant Froggy (Mark S. Jones), is brought by his friend to a fishing lodge owned by Betty (Jeanette Sebesta) in rural Georgia for much-needed R&R to cheer him up after learning of his wife's cancer and, more shocking, her constant infidelities — 23 by her own count. Charlie has an abnormal fear of talking to anyone about anything, so Froggy invents a story that he can't speak English and doesn't understand a word anyone says. Living at the lodge are Catherine (Elyse Rachal), fiancée to abnormally patient pastor David (James Reed), and her "slow" brother Ellard (Geoffrey Geiger), whom everybody treats like the village idiot. The villain of the piece is racist bigot Owen (John Wind), who wants nothing more than to turn the lodge into a mega-base for his beloved KKK. One by one, the locals confide in this silent confessor, bringing out the best in themselves, while the not-so-nice townsfolk blab away in front of him since they believe he can't understand what they're saying. Barron finds just the right note of bemused silliness for Charlie, who "comes out" in a wonderfully idiotic fairy tale that he invents to amuse Betty and friends. Meanwhile, Wind's scarily effective performance as the prototypical redneck adds a whole other layer of menace to Shue's featherweight play. While we laugh, he makes us catch our breath. Through June 9. Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square, 713-726-1219. — DLG

Magdalene Emerging playwright Sara Kumar tackles the New Testament in Magdalene, presented by Paragon Arts and the University of St. Thomas Center for Faith and Culture. The story is told from the point of view of Mary Magdalene as she moves from debauchery to redemption. This is an ambitious project, with a cast of 22, but it lacks dramatic flair and fresh insights. We see Mary Magdalene in the throes of sin so many times that it is tedious. The good news, paradoxically, is that the Devil steals the show. Richard Hubscher is a ballet dancer, and, in tattered formalwear, his pantomime, sinuous movements, silent reactions and seductive mien, replete with reflective green nails, lend quality and distinction to the production. James Monaghan plays Jesus and does well, but the costuming doesn't distinguish him from his disciples. The lead role of Mary Magdalene is a difficult one, and Briana J. Resa does not succeed in convincing us either of her allure or of her conversion. As Martha, Lyndsay Sweeney is so brisk as to seem to be in a sitcom instead of a quasi-religious pageant, and Brian Jones doesn't find the authority for Lazarus. Brandon del Castillo is effective in a minor role as a market vendor, as are Robin van Zandt as Dina, Sam Stengler as Simon, the very young Laura Hester as Miriam and Jeff Dorman as Doran. Magdalene is directed by Stewart Hawley, and he has failed to create the acting ensemble essential to a pageant; the acting styles are all over the lot. But the central flaw is the writing, as Kumar gives us narrative without drama. Through May 20. Obsidian Art Space, 3522 White Oak, 713-412-8478. — JTT

The Unexpected Man Acclaimed playwright Yasmina Reza (Art, God of Carnage) explores the inner life of a successful male novelist and a female admirer of his work, as they sit facing each other in a railroad carriage. Like the wildly successful Art, this is an actor's vehicle, designed to showcase talent. James Belcher plays the writer, and he creates a vivid portrait of a literary lion discovering that age does not soften vanity and pettiness, but increases the importance of regularity in bodily functions. He barely moves, but his powerful voice cascades with nuance and subtlety, and we see why playwright Reza saw fit to create this challenge for actors. The performance of Sally Edmundson, who has an interesting voice and an expressive face, is more problematic. Interior thoughts place her in the twilight of her life, but Edmundson has middle-aged robustness and the attractive legs to prove it. The play's director, Seth Gordon, interprets her as vivacious, with broad gestures as she ruminates. This destroys the illusion of the railroad carriage, as the writer would have noticed these gyrations. One passage is brilliant — the writer imagines the woman and a lover in Frankfurt, and the detail and wit of the description let us see his power. At the denouement, an affirmation by the woman becomes significant. Or does it? The ensuing conversation would have been revelatory, but the play ends. We should be grateful to Stages Repertory Theatre for presenting this work, and it may become a perennial as deft actors clamor to attempt it and directors to put their stamp on it. In this case, skilled acting meets and surpasses the challenge of a static play, allowing an acclaimed playwright to successfully pull off a high-wire act. Through May 13. Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Pkwy., 713-527-0123. — JJT


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