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Divine Writes

Two Playwrights-Fest Entries Ask the Big Questions

Debbie Bennett, Ran Frazier, and Rodney Bonds in Keeping the Faith.

By Brennen Jensen | Posted 8/11/1999

It’s summertime and the living is easy. (OK, it’s a little too dry.) But don’t expect the latest dramatic offerings in the Baltimore Playwrights Festival to match your lightweight seasonal attire. Both of these ambitious works grapple with heavy philosophical, societal, and religious issues.

Carol Weinberg’s Keeping the Faith, staged at the Spotlighters’ cozy theater-in-the-round, plunges viewers into two of our most divisive canyons: race and religion. Peter Baskin (Rodney Bonds) is a 43-year-old man-child, a lifelong bachelor whose apartment brims with Hardy Boys books, toy soldiers, and other silly bric-a-brac. When his rabbi sister Rhonda (WJHU-FM’s Diane Finlayson) informs him he’s too irresponsible to be named in her will as the guardian of her children, he sets out to prove her wrong by becoming a big brother to a fatherless boy. He’s paired with Derrick (Ran Frazier), a 14-year-old biracial orphan who is the product of a Jewish father and an African-American mother. Derrick’s grandmother Olivia Thomas (Debbie Bennett) supports the pairing, anxious for her grandson to learn about his father’s culture (especially since he’s been caught spray-painting anti-Semitic graffiti).

What unfolds is a sort of Guess Who’s Coming to Seder. And Baskin is hardly the perfect Jew, as we learn about his painful reasons for shunning much of his religious heritage. Derrick is even more at odds with himself. His pressure-applying peers feel he’s “not black enough,” while whites consider him “just another black kid.” Amid the big issues, Weinberg manages to inject some wit, much of it concerning the characters’ other big divide: Baskin is a Yankees fan; Derrick roots for the Mets. But there sometimes seems to be almost too much back story, and as the audience fathoms the characters’ intense internal baggage, we’re broadsided with bombshell issues—the Holocaust, slavery, ingrained prejudice—that siphon some of the energy away from the interpersonal relationship and problematic male bonding at the story’s core. (This dense script would benefit from some tightening and refocusing.)

But while the drama careens off innumerable emotional bumpers, it doesn’t do so at the expense of our attention or empathy. Some fine performances help. Frazier crisply and passionately negotiates his troubled adolescent from taciturn sulk to violent rage. Bonds, meanwhile, is able to convey Baskin’s avuncular charm as mere veneer. Director Bob Bardoff also deserves kudos for bringing this multifaceted story to the Spots’ diminutive stage. Weinberg at times throws too many dramatic balls in the air, but she manages to keep most of them aloft. As we enter the festival’s final round, her engaging and moving work seems poised to be a contender.

Keeping the Faith by Carol Weinberg
At the Spotlighters through August 28
Falling Grace by Mark Scharf
At River Hill High School Through August 22

From a drama about the chosen people we move to Falling Grace, a play (staged by Howard County’s Directors Choice Theater ensemble) concerning a woman wondering if she’s the chosen one. When Grace (Deborah Elizabeth Striegler) agrees to go skydiving with her fiancé Kevin (Gareth Kelly), she experiences one big problem: Her chute doesn’t open. Somehow she survives the 6,000-foot plunge. Was it a bizarre, atmospheric phenomenon or a Divine Miracle? The play is set in the rural, religious Southeast—an environment in which sides are quickly chosen.

The Rev. Carter (Stephen Namie) considers the still-in-one-piece Grace to be “living proof of God’s love.” Liz (Donna DeVilbiss), Grace’s city-wise big sister, provides a secular and skeptical view. (The reverend, she fathoms, wants to use Grace to fill collection plates.) The plot thickens when Grace is asked to lay her hands on sickly neighbor Bridget (Phyllis Stanley), who feels Grace is “directly connected to God” and so empowered to drive the cancer from her body. But Grace only wants to be left alone. She says her miracle survival “doesn’t feel like a miracle,” as she is assaulted from all sides by folks eager to interpret her accident for their own aims.

Scharf keeps Grace in the middle, and in so doing he keeps the play there as well. It’s neither a comedic farce about an unwitting messiah (à la Monty Python’s Life of Brian) nor a didactic religious exercise. His keenly drawn characters—from the guilt-ridden Kevin to the creepy, addled Christian zealot Paul (an appropriately creepy Steven King)—provide trenchant commentary on how folks bring their beliefs (or lack of them) to bear on startling events. But we aren’t fully grounded in what Grace’s pre-accident religious sentiments are, and so don’t discern how she’s changed. And perhaps she should bend a little more to the forces battling for her soul. At one point she does start to wonder if she was touched by God’s grace—but only briefly. While Weinberg goes a tad too far in her complex tale, Scharf doesn’t quite go far enough. Especially since his story is wrapped up in a somewhat trick ending that seems to trip the balance toward a distinct side of the secular-sacred fence.

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