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CurtainUp DC Review
by Rich See
Everyone has a dream, but what do you do when your own children stand in the way of making your dream a reality?
Studio Theatre takes a look at this perplexing state of emotions with the world premiere of Javon Johnson's Runaway Home. Johnson, a protégé of August Wilson, is again collaborating with Studio, just as he did with last seasons' Hambone. And as he did in that production, he has placed Runaway in his childhood home of rural Anderson, South Carolina. And, like his previous writings, Runaway Home is based upon his own life experiences, this time modeled after an aunt who pondered pursuing a life without the constraints of her family. Having purposely placed the play at the end of 1981, a time when Anderson offered few hopes and even fewer opportunities for its inhabitants, Johnson has created a tightly claustrophobic environment.
As Runaway Home's main character BettyAnn Moore, Rosalyn Coleman, is a woman who seems incredibly worn out. A single mother with five children, she is holding down two jobs and trying to make ends meet. Now 38 years old and having been left for a white woman by the father of her children, BettyAnn is having trouble not only stocking the refrigerator but also keeping authority in her home. To her aid come three men - her brother Frank (Wayne W. Pretlow), local lumberyard owner Big Eddie (Cleo Reginald Pizana), and grocery store manager Thomas (Frederick Strother). Big Eddie provides her with free firewood. Thomas provides her with free groceries. And each hopes that she will marry him. Her brother Frank, a truck driver who is constantly on the road, is more concerned about where his nephew Steedee (Brandon J. Price) is spending his evenings and how BettyAnn seems to be losing control of her family. But although she accepts the firewood and groceries from her would-be suitors and wants her brother to stay close to home to provide her moral support, she is steadfast in her determination to handle her dissolving family situation on her own without their input. Until her high school sweetheart, Paul (Sekou Laidlow), an up and coming R&B star, walks back into her world.
Director, Regge Life, has assembled an admirable cast considering this production deals with the emotional theme of maternal abandonment and thus features five characters under the age of 21. There are moments of great hilarity as when Big Eddie (Cleo Reginald Pizana) tells BettyAnn that men with a little more girth can provide a bit more mirth. Or Uncle Frank's realization that his two young nephews Tee Tee (Javier D. Brown) and Junebug (Christopher Gallant III) may be more worldly than he is comfortable admitting.
Daniel L. Conway's set design recreates the 1970's ranch house, complete with afghan on the sofa, children's games under the coffee table, and hi/fi stereo. Gil Thompson's R&B music and Michael Giannitti's low lighting complete the transition to the late 70's/early 80's home.
Although the production brings us an interesting look at the limits of motherly love, it is actually anti-climatic. Johnson doesn't quite accomplish what he sets out to do in examining the emotional landscape of parental abandonment. BettyAnn seems so tired by life -- tired to the depth of her soul -- that one never gets the sense that she is really following a dream so much as fleeing the difficulties of her existence. And she seems to be doing that almost against her own will. So while during ninety-five percent of the play she seems most concerned about her children, when she makes the decision that Paul is her dream, it simply seems to be yet another bad choice about a man. Especially since Paul admits that he is a cocaine addict but assures her that "with her by his side he won't need it anymore". At that point you get the sense that it's not so much her limits as a mother that are being questioned but the limits of her intelligence. Without any emotional foreshadowing, other than BettyAnn approaching mid-life alone, tired, and afraid, the audience is left simply as a viewer without an innate investment. Thus at the critical moment, on Christmas Eve, when BettyAnn makes her decision, the audience looks on and simply thinks, "Oh".
One aspect that would have helped in understanding BettyAnn, and the decisions that she makes, are the relationships she has with her two daughters, Angel (Edwina Findley) and Shadymae (Ashley Blaine Featherson). Each represents a different aspect of BettyAnn and she treats each of them very differently -- to the point of neglecting one and trying to sabotage the future of the other. If Johnson had examined these relationships more fully perhaps he would have given us a more complete picture of a mother's conflict between maternal love, physical desire, and despair.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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