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The Vision Thing

Knees and Toes Can't Connect With Promising Premise

Coby Kay Callahan and Gareth Kelly in the Mobtown Players' Knees and Toes

By Jack Purdy | Posted 7/25/2001

Knees and Toes

Michael Wright

There's a kernel of a good idea for a play in Michael Wright's Knees and Toes, now being presented at AXIS Theatre by the Mobtown Players as part of the Baltimore Playwrights Festival. Unfortunately, that kernel gets lost in a whole lot of corn and a whole lot more questionable dramatic structure.

This is, essentially, a four-character play about two couples. Holly (Coby Kay Callahan) and Ira (Chris Graybill) are well-to-do New York artsy types--he's a photographer and she's a children's-bookstore owner. Ray (Gareth Kelly) is a blind guy who teaches Braille at a school for the blind in Baltimore, and June (Elizabeth Darby), who just lost her sight in an auto accident, is his pupil. So far, a rather neat parallel--a couple totally dependent economically on the sense of sight and two people stripped of it. But while Wright keeps the parallels coming in a variety of ways (Ira and June, for example, share a common concern about suicide), those parallels never converge to create dramatic momentum.

The principal reason for this is Wright's decision to structure his work as a series of blackout scenes, occurring with an irregular rhythm. What's particularly vexing is the odd choice of presenting Ira and Holly's relationship in nonchronological order. Scenes of their life together, which consist of an unpleasant amount of bickering and childish behavior, precede their meeting at the funeral of a mutual acquaintance. So there's no sense of progression in their relationship and no real indication of what attracts them to one another. When Wright stages a big emotional fight scene--precipitated when Ira forgets to pick up some salad ingredients--it comes absolutely out of nowhere and makes Holly look like a demanding shrew.

Simultaneously, Ray and June are down in Baltimore, starting a disastrous relationship as teacher and pupil. Of the four principal performers in Knees and Toes, local theater veteran Kelly turns in the most rounded, nuanced performance as Ray. In the first act, though, his character comes off as truly despicable--don't know what else you'd call a teacher who almost immediately starts coming on to his new, just-blinded pupil. In the real world, this kind of behavior gets you fired and, perhaps, prosecuted. Ray's obviously meant to be sympathetic, but his actions are so egregious that it takes the remainder of the entire play to get the audience anywhere close to being on his side.

It takes two deaths (let's not say whose) to make these parallel stories at last run perpendicular. And Wright tries to enliven that intertwining with the supposedly farcical element of a misplaced body, which causes no end of grief for a hospital nurse named Alma (Robin Lang). Indeed, Knees and Toes, filled as it is with cancer, suicide, blindness, and assorted references to organ donations and cornea transplants, sounds like it should play with a blackly humorous heart. But Wright, while capable of penning decent zingers, really is writing about closure, healing, and other emotional milestones that play well on Oprah but are deadly--and deadening--on stage.

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