Even though not much happens in Doug Grissom's Deep Down, the play is rich with dramatic potential. Unfortunately that potential is buried too deep in Main Street Theater's lethargic production of this story about race, history and the power of self-discovery.
The play unfolds in the volatile year of 1963, on a red-dirt farm in Florida. Skirting the edge of a white cracker town where segregation rules and where some folks still aren't sure just who Martin Luther King is, the farm and the earth it is built upon become a microcosm of a nation struggling to face a shameful history.
Ned Xnides (Thomas Baird) hires Daniel Freeman (Kelvin Hamilton) to help him dig for lost Spanish treasure. Ned is an uneducated white "kook" who's marginalized by the area's people. "The town's full of stupid folk. It's our cash crop," he snorts, defensively.
Daniel is a black ex-con who knifed a man during a card game to protect his sister. He's also an "idealist" and "philosopher" who's forced into the back-breaking work that Ned provides because nobody else will hire him. These two misanthropes become unlikely allies. And when they find themselves confronted with an ugly history, they attempt to make something good out of it.
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The treasure that Ned hopes to find is, of course, not buried on his potato farm. Instead, the men uncover the buried artifacts of a slave camp. It takes them awhile to realize what's up with the squashed tin cups and links of chain. After Ned's daughter Hannah (Erin Makel) does some digging of her own, in the town's library, they discover that the farm was part of a large plantation.
This discovery is complicated by the relationship that evolves between Daniel and the daughter. Young, wild and driven, Hannah is drawn toward Daniel, in part because the relationship is forbidden in the South of the sixties. But this is a girl who believes she is "written in a foreign language no one can translate," and in Daniel she finds a soul mate. She gazes at him, saying, "The person I see reflected in your eyes is different from who I thought I was." The two young rebels take long late-night walks by the river and share their secrets, including the fact that each collects maps of distant, exotic places.
There is something hackneyed in this familiar tale. But there is also something potentially moving in the way these characters discover the power of history. The digging (Mims Mattair's set is an enormous sand pile filling Main Street's stage) becomes a metaphor for the digging we all must do in order to know ourselves and each other. "If I can dig deep enough, I might raise myself up," says Daniel, as he struggles with what lies beneath his feet.
However, the trouble with Main Street's production is the lack of torque between the actors. As directed by Kirk Dautrive, these actors aren't talking to each other so much as at each other; thus no real friction, no real struggle, is generated between them. Daniel and Ned should be moving from moments of deep understanding to utter antipathy. Ned resorts to bitter name-calling and sarcasm when he doesn't get his way. Disgusted, Daniel throws down his shovel over and over, sorely tempted to walk away, even if it means losing his probation.
But instead of rage and indignation, we get confused emotional mush. As played by Hamilton and Baird, these men seem neither to like nor hate each other. They just tolerate each other's existence. While this is often the case in real life, there is not enough drama to make the play interesting.
Limp-kneed decisions by the director and actors also mar the relationship of Hannah and Daniel. Hamilton and Makel never make it clear that these two characters actually have a fling, much less a passionate, dangerous or wild one.
In short, there is simply not enough muscle in Main Street's production to dig up the treasure hidden in this lyrical little play.
Deep Down runs through October 31 at Main Street Theater, 2540 Times Boulevard, (713)524-6706. $15-$20.
Sunday's Sad Song
Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-woman one-act musical Tell Me on a Sunday is another installment in Theater LaB's "salute to contemporary British theater," though this show only makes it appear that there's little left to salute in English theater.
The best thing about this silliness is that it's very short. Lasting all of an hour, the play takes us into the psyche of British hat designer Emma (Joanne Bonasso), who ventures to America in high hopes of hat-designing fame. She runs through a series of affairs with some icky American stereotypes, eventually grabbing an elusive green card and finding her way to entrepreneurial heaven with a Neiman-Marcus contract.
We learn about Emma's romantic missteps through letters she writes home to Mama, but why she'd be telling her poor mother half of what she does is beyond me.
Her first beau is Chuck the musician. When he comes home very late on her first night in America, Emma spills tea on his bongos, then packs and leaves. The strangest part is that Emma is alone on stage (remember, this is a one-woman show). Chuck -- and all her other men, for that matter -- are rendered in muffled musical noises that sound like adults in a Charlie Brown cartoon, sort of wah wah wah.
"Let me finish," sings Emma.
"Wah, wah, wah," says Chuck, Sheldon, Joe and Paul -- any man who traipses through Emma's life.
It's hard to imagine this strange conceit ever working. Bonasso does as well as anyone could expect, given that she's singing to the air. Emma also sings her letters home as she sits at a desk and scribbles them.
Hobbled by the ridiculous structure, there is little director Jim Phillips can do except urge his actress to sing out big and brassy. And Bonasso obliges with lots of big-armed musical gestures. Her voice handles the score with great gusto, except for the high notes.
But all this energy is for naught. This is a show best left back home with the queen.
Tell Me on a Sunday runs through November 6 at Theater LaB, 1706 Alamo, (713)868-7516. $20-$22.
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