Theater Review: “The Wakeville Stories” – Theater as Civic Ritual
Dramatist Laurence Carr has a gift for vivid characterization and for creating a concrete sense of time and place.
The Wakeville Stories by Laurence Carr. Directed by Kristin Dwyer. Staged by the Matty Mae Theater Project: Matinées at Somerville Veterans Memorial Cemetery; evening shows at Davis Square Theatre, Somerville, MA, through June 28.
By Ian Thal
It is August 1945 in a small town on the Ohio side of the border with West Virginia. The Wakeville Community Cemetery has expanded to the adjacent baseball field in order to accommodate the remains of the local boys killed in the recent war. Merjane (Dani Berkowitz), a young girl in overalls and pigtails, plays among the headstones high up on the hill. Her uncle Cyrus (Kevin C. Groppe), the groundskeeper, takes special care of the graves of those who no longer have anyone to visit them. Matty Mae’s stone is one of those cemetery sites. She died in her forties after driving her car into the river. Though the woman has been dead for three years, her independent streak remains the subject of gossip in this small town, talk that Merjane has picked up and repeats to Cyrus’ disapproval. Merjane has only recently come to live with her uncle after her mother, a singer, hit the road to perform in honky-tonks, Cyrus is concerned about raising his niece, especially getting the balance right between discipline and freedom.
From between the headstones Merjane spies on Six (Kathleen C. Lewis) a fashionably dressed store clerk (Her nickname is derived from the first two letters of her name, Violet). Six lays out a picnic blanket and then starts up a conversation with her grandmother, who is interred next to Matty Mae. In a nod to magic realism, Six’s “Gamma” speaks back, using Merjane as a medium (this is not the only time the child manifests this ability). Sensing that they are kindred spirits, a fast friendship quickly forms between the girl and the young woman. However, Six isn’t there just to pay her respects; she has a rendezvous with Tweedy (Meg Di Maggio), her more plainly dressed best friend, who has been running her family farm, and Billy (Michael Kelly), a soldier home from WWII, whom Six has been pining for since he shipped out. Six is caught off-guard when Tweedy and Billy announce that they plan to be married.
When Billy acknowledges the Wakeville boys who did not make it home alive he is wracked with survivor’s guilt. He is shocked at how the Wakeville girls have grown into independent women while he was fighting against German soldiers. Love isn’t as simple as Six imagines: Billy and Tweedy negotiate what marriage is going to mean for them. Eventually, Six takes inspiration from the spirit of Matty Mae and considers striking out on her own. Merjane wonders when her mother is coming back or if she will have to search for her.
Wakeville in 1945 is a very different world than ours, with different mores. Merjane notes how the cemetery is segregated, and delivers a morbidly comic monologue about how the floods will come, washing the corpses from their grave and integrating the dead. Likewise, the era’s strict gender roles leave Billy horrified to discover that his future wife knows about pornographic magazines. He thought only men were familiar with such things. The sexual revolution has not yet arrived: lovemaking is reserved for married couples, though soldiers routinely make use of prostitutes. Attitudes toward drinking beer in public are more relaxed. Even the conception of childhood is different: adults can befriend children without suspicion, and independent-minded children like Merjane are free to go on adventures so long as they are home for supper, as when she recounts the time she snuck into a carnival tent to see the freaks, as well as more erotic entertainment explicitly reserved for men.
Carr’s vignettes are closely interwoven, but the episodic script’s episodic structure is a reminder that this is not “The Wakeville Story” but “The Wakeville Stories.” The drama ends with scene 4, but could just as well have continued on with additional yarns. Carr has been inhabiting Wakeville for decades: earlier versions of the first two scenes have been in circulation as one-acts since 1985; perhaps he will decide in the future that its citizens have still more stories to tell. That would not be a bad decision: his gift for vivid characterization, and for creating a concrete sense of time and place through agile use of the area’s regional dialect (no accent coach is credited, but the cast are uniformly excellent), enchants.
Berkowitz is an energetically playful physical comedian. She skillfully modulates the mischief, fear, confusion, joys, appetites, and morbid fascinations that make up the emotional life of a bright and engaging wild-child like Merjane. Lewis embodies Six’s ambivalence: on the one hand, she embraces conventional optimism, yet underneath there’s a sense of disappointment that makes her relish the unpredictable possibilities that the post-war era will offer.
Despite the occasional anachronistic footwear and discernible clothing labels, costume designer Emily Taradash dresses the play’s characters in a wide variety of period clothing – attending not just to the wardrobe of the fashionably dressed Six, but also the very different manner in which men’s pants were cut seventy years ago. Scenic designer and propmaster Geoff Ehrendreich has gathered a good assortment of period furniture, fabrics, and bric-a-brac.
Director Kristin Dwyer’s choice to stage The Wakeville Stories in the Somerville Veterans’ Memorial Cemetery (for selected performances) may look unconventional, but it is a splendid acknowledgement of Western theater’s ancient origins as a ritual dedicated to the strengths of continuity, civic and mythic. In that elemental sense, the graveyard makes an apt setting for Carr’s moving dramatization of issues dealing with war, death, and the responsibilities of the living.
Ian Thal is a playwright, performer and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. Two of his short plays appeared in theater festivals this past summer. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled From The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.