Theater Review: “Stew” — A Winning Recipe

By David Greenham

Congratulations to Gloucester Stage’s new artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw for mounting the regional premiere of this interesting script, a kitchen sink comedy/drama that is anything but routine.

Cheryl Singleton in Gloucester Stage Company’s production of Stew. Photo: Jason Grow

Stew by Zora Howard. Directed by Rosalind Bevan. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Costume design by KJ Gilmer. Lighting design by Kat C. Zhou. Sound design by Aubrey Dube.  Staged by the Gloucester Stage Company, Gloucester, through July 23.

We all could use a moment  now and then to sing along to soulful gospel music and gather our thoughts. That’s exactly what Mama (Cheryl D. Singleton) does during the opening culinary moments of Zora Howard’s Pulitzer finalist script, Stew.

Set in the Turner family’s comfortable, if dated kitchen, Mama is layering flavors on what she calls a “stew for a very special occasion” as she sways to the music. Her solitude is quickly interrupted by a loud bang from outside the house. It not only shocks Mama, but rouses the whole house, which includes her daughters Lillian (Breezy Leigh) in her 30s and 17 year-old Nelly (Janelle Grace) as ell as Lillian’s 12-year-old daughter, Lil Mama (Sadiyah Dyce Janai Stephens).

The four Turner women, with alternately bubbling and percolating energy, generate plenty of multi-generational banter and blame as they work their way through Howard’s nifty 90-minute comic drama. Like the stew on the stove, the Turners are a multi-layered concoction.

The plot? An event after church on Sunday calls for enough to feed 50 people. Despite Mama’s best efforts — which are easily redirected to other interests and concerns — the stew has been burned and she must start again, from scratch.

Of course, Howard’s kitchen drama isn’t really concerned about the stew on the stove. (It is the dramatist’s version of a MacGuffin.) Instead, the action focuses on the conversational give-and-take of domestic conflicts. Each character comes to the table with her own struggles, and the problems become more complicated as the talk proceeds.

Mama’s sick and slowing down, but she’s not ready to talk about it. “Are you dyin’?” Lillian demands to know. Mama’s not giving away anything, but admits wryly, “It’s certainly the direction I’m heading.” Lillian has just returned home suddenly and is slowly beginning to talk about the challenges of her marriage. Additional revelations arrive. The phone rings multiple times and, when someone else answers, the caller hangs up. Eventually Lillian finally opens up and offers an explanation mingled with regret.

Marriage isn’t the first thing on Nelly’s mind. It’s the hunt for true love. Not ‘boyfriend’ love, she explains to Lil Mama, she’s got a ‘man.’ “A boyfriend is temporary,” Nelly confidently announces, “a man is forever.” She’s in a hurry to find the real thing and won’t slow down. “Time don’t do nothing but make you old, sick and dead,” Nelly proclaims.

When it comes right down to it, Lil Mama thinks all of the adults are a little crazy. Stephens’ Lil Mama’s delightfully expressive face responds to everything around her with amusing vigor. But even Lil Mama has a secret: she’s auditioning for the role of Queen Elizabeth in a school production of Shakespeare’s Richard III. She needs to prepare.

This delightful news sparks the family to action. Each woman proclaims she is skilled in acting. The audition prepping supplies lots of laughs, but it’s Mama who has the final say. She is, after all, “founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Dramatic League as well as the first soloist at the Greater Centennial A.M.E. Zion Church.” Mama also knows a thing or two about the kind of loss Queen Elizabeth experienced and the passions behind  ‘mother’s lamentation.’

Stew is directed with wise dispatch by Rosalind Bevan. A few words are lost in the confab , and characters talk over one another on occasion. But don’t fret; what goes around will come around again. Think of your own family gatherings. What’s more challenging is to make the rare silences of the Turner women compelling. There’s not a shy one in this group; they all have opinions on just about everything. Credit Bevan to putting together a layered dish of emotions and relationships, one that comfortably contains laughs, love. and silent despair.

As Mama, Singleton chooses an understated approach, offering a strong contrast to the other three performers. She interjects  lots of wry wit, and perfectly captures the conflict between deep faith and a desire to curse about an irritating neighborhood dog who won’t stop barking.

Leigh’s brooding and strong-willed Lillian has the most complicated character. We don’t always know exactly what’s going through her mind, but Leigh, with infectious energy, suggests the figure’s inner turmoil.

To me, Janelle Grace captures the essence of a 17 year-old know-it-all daughter. She thinks she has life completely figured out — even though she doesn’t know what the next moment will bring. The character is stuck in a familiar family cycle — and the future is up-for-grabs.

Lil Mama might be a tribute to a long line of young teen or late pre-teen girls that we often find in classic literature. Stephens creates a delightfully silly character. She’s part free spirit, determined to do her own thing, and part sponge, soaking in all that’s around her.

Jenna McFarland Lord’s set and KJ Gilmer’s costumes are just right — off kilter enough to keep us on our toes. Kat C. Zhou’s lighting is usually spot-on, but this time around it comes off as uncertain, even intrusive. One critical moment at the end that calls for augmented lighting is well executed. But before that there are times  the lighting calls attention to itself in ways that are not connected to the text or the production’s emotions.

What hits the mark, though, is Aubrey Dube’s satisfyingly bluesy sound design. The vibrant music between scenes serves the narrative well — the tunes give us much-needed permission to exhale.

Congratulations to Gloucester’s new artistic director Rebecca Bradshaw for mounting the regional premiere of this interesting script, a kitchen sink comedy/drama that is anything but routine.

David Greenham is an adjunct lecturer of Drama at the University of Maine at Augusta, and is the executive director of the Maine Arts Commission. He has been a theater artist and arts administrator in Maine for more than 30 years.

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