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Pecan Tan

by Rich See

Someone's knocking on the door, somebody's ringing the bell, do me a favor, open the door and let 'em in...
--- from the song "Let 'Em In" by Paul McCartney & Wings

Willette Thompson, Marc R. Payne (standing), Tiffany Fillmore, Randall Shepperd and Lynn Chavis
W. Thompson, M. R. Payne, T. Fillmore, R. Shepperd and L. Chavis
(Photo: Clifford L. Russell, Jr.)

The African Continuum Theatre Company provides a treat with their newest comedy Pecan Tan. It's a witty foray into the universality of dysfunction as the theatre turns its spy glass on a South Carolina family trying to self-actualize via Oprah and astrology, while also dealing with an oncoming hurricane and the arrival of a long lost daughter. Just about everyone can identify at some point with the play's theme of how we drive the our loved ones crazy -- simply by being ourselves.

Writer Tanya Barfield paints a broad stroked picture of family life. While she chooses humor over substance, and the first act is more tautly written than the second, Ms. Barfield does have a great talent for writing insightfully witty and funny lines.

Daughter Thelma is an Oprah acolyte, her mother a daily drinker of gin and tonics. Thelma's husband Darryl is a ne'r-do-well always working a scheme, while her brother Jimmy is a west coast astrology buff who enjoys instigating and watching the family drama. Into this mix enters Olga, a twenty year old woman from New York, who is searching for a father she has never known and bringing with her a backpack full of baggage all her own. Although no great revelations are revealed, the humorous ride is a great deal of fun. And when it's all over you realize one thing: families... you can't live with 'em, you can't live without 'em. So you might as well enjoy 'em as much as you can and learn to forgive the rest.

Set Designer Tracie Duncan has picked up Ms. Barfield's paintbrush and created a set that reminds one of a box of crayons. Bright neon greens, yellows, and oranges with a rainbow design on the floor (to highlight the calm after the storm) bring a comic-like attitude to the stage. A model of efficiency and inventiveness, half walls flip up to allow furniture to be pulled onto the stage. Where a refrigerator was drawn on the wall, now a real refrigerator is pushed out in the former picture's spot. It's like a comic strip panel come to life.

The rest of the design team picks up on the fun and games. David Lamont Wilson adds to the humor in subtle ways with his sound design. When someone rings the doorbell the opening refrains of the old Paul McCartney song "'Let 'Em In" chime out. Which just happens to be the central idea behind the play -- let people into your life by forgiving them their shortcomings. Marie Schneggenberger's costumes are straightforward styles with each character definitely dressing to their personality. When potential father accuses potential daughter of not being feminine enough, the irony is that both are wearing almost identical work boots. Harold Burgess' lighting design is also well done.

As Thelma, Lynn Chavis generates a great deal of warmth from the character -- not an easy thing, since Thelma is yelling a great deal, first at her husband who has resurfaced after a mysterious month-long absence and then at her mother who seems more concerned about her afternoon gin than her daughter's happiness. It's Thelma who is holding the family and the house together. When she says "Lord, I can not deal with my family! Take me out of South Carolina!" you know exactly what she means.

Randall Shepperd's Darryl Jerome is an average kind of guy, with a penchant for trying to take the easy way out of things. Unfortunately he always seems to get caught in his plans when the schemes backfire in his face. A bit curmudgeonly, he's a man who grows on you over time, so his reconciliation with Thelma is believable and welcome.

Astrology buff and ladies' man Jimmy (played with a wink in his eye by Marc Payne) is the family instigator who sums up the brood very succinctly with "Everyone in this family is either dead or run away." You immediately get the idea: he loves his family, but they kind of make him nutty. Mr. Payne seems to embrace his character's free flowing attitude.

Willette Thompson has the most comedic lines and the greatest chance to leave an impression on the audience. As the subtle drinking Mrs. Davis (Thelma's mother), Ms. Thompson takes every opportunity with her lines. Whether she's slowly becoming more and more inebriated and thus making less and less sense, casually explaining Darryl's botched Popeyes Chicken robbery experience or tugging on her wig as a foreboding to soon seeing it in her pocket, there is a laugh just around the corner. The character could easily become one dimensional, and is eerily similar to the role Vicki Lawrence played on the TV sitcom Momma's Family. Ms. Willette, however does a great job.

And as the newly arrived, potentially long lost, daughter Olga, Tiffany Fillmore looks appropriately bewildered and lost. Described by Mrs. Davis as a "cross-dressing, biracial, voodoo lesbian child" Ms. Fillmore is hampered by the fact that her character is a device to assist the rest of the family in coming to terms with each other. Thus, there's only a fleeting surface examination of the "cross-dressing, biracial, voodoo lesbian" aspects of her character. Even more interesting is that the character never actually confirms she is a lesbian. There's much fodder here for deeper examination, if Ms. Barfield decides she wants to further tinker with her writing.

ACTCo's artistic director, Jennifer Nelson, takes the directing helm for this production and seems to be enjoying everything about the piece. Realizing laughter can often be the best medicine, she's pushed her cast to bring out the humor in every line and go for broke wherever a potential joke may be hiding. There are a few rough spots as the production sometimes veers a little too close to TV sitcom style and has a second act that doesn't completely realize the potential of the first. However, those are minor shortcomings considering how much enjoyment the audience is having watching the show. Pecan Tan's a great deal of fun and when you recognize aspects of yourself and the one's you love within it, you'll laugh even harder.

Pecan Tan
by Tanya Barfield
Directed by Jennifer L. Nelson
with Lynn Chavis, Tiffany Fillmore, Marc R. Payne, Randall Shepperd, Willette Thompson
Scenic and Properties Design: Tracie Duncan
Lighting Design: Harold F. Burgess II
Costume Design: Marie Schneggenberger
Sound Design: David Lamont Wilson
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes with 1 intermission
A production of The African Continuum Theatre Company
H Street Playhouse, 1365 H Street NE
Telephone: Tickets 1-800-494-8497; Information 202-529-5764
THU-SAT@8, SAT-SUN@2; $20-$30
Opening 02/03/05, closing 02/27/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 02/04/05 performance
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