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A CurtainUp Review

Jar the Floor
By Les Gutman

If you can imagine an African-American version of the popular television show The Golden Girls, in which the four women represent different generations of the same family, you've got the basic idea of Jar the Floor. It's a vivid portrait of the evolving interaction between mothers and daughters, particularly well-illuminated by the reflective roles of the women of the "interior" generations.

We are in suburban Chicago, in the home of Maydee (Regina Taylor), a college professor anxiously awaiting a tenure decision. Her widowed grandmother, Viola (Irma P. Hall), called MaDear, lives with her and today celebrates her 90th birthday. Maydee's own mother, Lola (Lynne Thigpen), dutifully comes to visit her mother daily and today is of course no exception.

Men are very much in absentia in this play. Viola, enjoying both the wisdom and the confusion her age brings, anticipates the return of  her dead husband while she waits, almost as improbably, for her son. Lola, aggressively attempting to buttress her middle-age insecurities by garnering the attention of men who for one reason or another fail her, is having roughly the same level of success. Maydee has taken a different tack. Rather than pursuing a man, she has earnestly placed her career on the front-burner and her romantic life on hold. Her pierced, shaven-headed college-aged daughter, Vennie (Linda Powell), who arrives in a puff of marijuana smoke, is lucky enough to have circumnavigated the endemic problem: she's a lesbian.

Vennie brings with her a subplot, however. Imagine, again: this time a version of the movie Guess Who's Coming to Dinner in which the Sidney Poitier character is Raisa (Welker White), a white Jewish woman with a five year old son, who became separated from her husband after she had a mastectomy and chose to decline all cosmetic alternatives to conceal it. Raisa is now dating Vennie.
Over two acts, almost every conceivable women's issue is touched on. There's really way too much going on here and, while Cheryl West is never able to rein it all in, Marion McClinton comes to the rescue, modulating the flow in such a way that the humor is emphasized without obscuring the central depiction of these mothers and daughters and the way the speak to each other when they should be silent and remain silent when they need to speak.

McLinton has a lot of allies, and they substantiate their reputations. David Gallo's attractive fixed set, a picture perfect evocation of a suburban house of a certain type, does a remarkable job of slicing the stage from front to rear to essentially afford a view of everything from the front door to the rear yard of Maydee's home. Donald Holder lights it perfectly as well, and Michael Krass does a terrific job of expressing the personalities of the five women through their costumes. But the most impressive design element here is Janet Kalas's sound design. From the play's opening scene to the end of the first act and then on to the play's end, the musical choices define the mood and resonate.

The production is also blessed with almost unimaginably apt casting, starting with Ms Thigpen, but certainly not limited to her. She is indeed excellent, allowing her egocentric superficiality and greed give way to genuine exaltation as well as heartache. And you can set your clock by her comic timing. Hall is no slouch in the laugh-generating department either, playing her hobbled condition for all its worth, but she seems to have no infirmity when she launches into one of the play's most touching scenes, in which she bonds with Raisa. It's the kind of scene that could easily degenerate into much eye-rolling in the hands of someone lacking her conviction. The hardest portrayal falls on Regina Taylor's shoulders: she must maintain her stoicism in the face of everyone else's antics. The two younger women are fine, even if their roles don't make as many demands on them.

There's no doubt this play could use a bit of cutting, and that some of the paths it follows never find their way home. But, just as the three younger generations eventually submit to MaDear's imagination, so the audience surrenders to the play's harshly poignant yet exceptionally funny thrust.

by Cheryl L. West 
Directed by Marion McClinton 
with Irma P. Hall, Linda Powell, Regina Taylor, Lynne Thigpen and Welker White 
Set Design: David Gallo 
Lighting Design: Donald Holder 
Costume Design: Michael Krass 
Sound Design: Janet Kalas 
Second Stage Theatre, 307 West 43rd Street (8th/9th AV) (212) 246-4422 
opened August 16 
Reviewed by Les Gutman August 17, 1999

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