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Off the Mark

Scharf Just Misses with New Play

What're You Looking At?: (From left) Bethany Brown, Yvonne Erickson, and Drew childers explore forbidden love in the Whispers Of Saints.

By Jack Purdy | Posted 7/17/2002

The Whispers of Saints

Mark Scharf

Most of the time, the phrase "play reviewing" is a misnomer. When it's a work by Shakespeare, or Edward Albee, or Arthur Miller, what's getting reviewed is the performance, the staging, the director's interpretation--not the play itself, which has long since passed into the dramatic canon. So from a critic's perspective, one of the most enjoyable things about the Baltimore Playwrights Festival is that it showcases brand new work and, by its very name, invites a discussion of the craft involved in creating that work. One of the attendant problems, of course, in an age when new serious plays will pass through nearly endless series of readings, workshops, and preliminary productions, is not knowing whether you are seeing a finished piece of drama or a work in progress.

Mark Scharf, whose play The Mean Reds was named Best Production in the 1998 BPF, is a serious and accomplished dramatist. For that reason, it seems a safe bet to say that his 2002 BPF offering, The Whispers of Saints, is still under development. While filled with highly charged themes of sexuality, betrayal, and estrangement, The Whispers of Saints doesn't take those themes to the level of dramatic intensity they deserve, despite winning performances from its cast of three. You're left with a sense of a playwright feeling his way and pulling back at the biggest emotional moments, so that a true sense of resolution is lost--in a work that is all about loss and how to deal with it.

Laura (Yvonne Erickson) has just had her husband walk out on her, so she flees to the only place of peace she's ever been sure of: the beach house where she spent childhood summers. Laura's mother, Catherine (Bethany Brown), is now in year-round residence there, having lost her license to practice psychiatry when she had an affair with a much younger man named David (Drew Childers), whom she now lives with. Laura and Catherine's long and unhappy history together forms the core of the play, with David, a troubled kid caught in the middle, providing an element of sexual conflict. Adding to the general chilliness is the time of year--Scharf has set his play in the off-season, when wind-whipped waves are gray and forbidding.

Bit by bit, back story is teased out. Laura is deeply ashamed--ashamed of losing her husband, ashamed of long ago losing her father and mother to divorce, ashamed of her mother's current liaison. She's also enraged that her mother doesn't feel any remorse about the past or the present. Erickson is a lithe and attractive performer who, from the moment she first meets Childers' David, infuses her role with equal parts loathing and physical attraction. But Erickson can't overcome the fact that Laura, as the play now stands, is a nastily combative person for whom it's difficult to feel any sympathy. She's one of those people who is in so much pain that all she can do is tell you how much pain she's in. On stage, as in real life, that quickly becomes, well, a pain.

By contrast, Brown's Catherine is all sympathy and maternal understanding. She's also more finely drawn by Scharf. This is a woman who gave up her entire identity as a therapist and "respected" member of the community because of her deep attraction to a boy much younger than her own daughter. But Catherine isn't full of regrets because she is old and wise enough to know that the past can't be undone and the future can't be controlled. Brown taps into this wisdom, summoning up the spirit of a woman who has learned to live for the present.

If Scharf looks to reshape his work, it's the character of David that could best be retooled. Childers does a nice job making David both cocksure and naive, but the key element of his psychological problem is thinly developed. David is a "mild, very mild" manic-depressive, but when he enters a manic state, epitomized by going on a crazy supermarket shopping spree, the mania is quickly introduced and forgotten. Mania can lead to some very dramatic behavior, but it is reduced here to a plot point when it might have propelled The Whispers of Saints toward a climactic intensity worth shouting about.

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