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8/20/2023          THE MANUSCRIPT / THE WISHING PLACE      Essential Theatre Play Festival


pgm Essential

This is the 24th year for the Essential Theatre Festival of New Plays, and for its main stage productions, it has given us two plays, similar in theme and focus, but dissimilar in tone and style and … well, let me discuss each in turn, then I will conclude with a basic “compare and contrast” attempt at profundity.



THE MANUSCRIPT by Matthew Hoffman


Holly is dead.  She has left her wife and estranged mother in a state of dysfunction.  Susan, Holly’s mother, never really accepted her “coming out” as gay.  Anna, Holly’s wife, (may have) run the household with an iron will of control, even when it came to their plan to have a child.  Now, Holly is dead.  Hanged by her own hand, the end result of many years of clinical depression.  Or, in Susan’s view, driven to it by her controlling spouse.  Or, in Anna’s view, the natural response to years of judgmental dismissal from her mother,


This is a very strong drama, centered by two intensely honest performances from Hannah Morris (Anna) and Laurie Beasley (Susan).  It is a tightly written and urgently performed two-hander (other than a young Holly and adult Holly who appear in video projections and a UPS guy who delivers the pivotal manuscript).


You see, Holly was an aspiring writer and his written her story as a book, which, according to her editor, is a brilliant piece of writing.  The question remains, who will hate it more, wife or mother?

The strength of this production, this play, is that we really don’t know the truth about Holly’s relationship with these strong(er  -- much stronger) women. We only know what they tell each other.  We know their accusations are colored by grief and by anger, and we suspect both “witnesses” are right, that Holly’s depression, long standing as it was, may have been exacerbated by her marriage.


And, as poles apart as Anna and Susan are, as strong as their dislike for each other becomes, the climactic “burying of the hatchet” seems earned, seems natural, and is moving.  Maybe because we suspect it’s only temporary, that the reading of the manuscript will reopen the wounds, restart the arguments, rekindle the resentments.  This is one of those plays that could use a third act – it doesn’t so much resolve as glide to an uneasy truce, leaving us to wonder what’s REALLY in that manuscript, how these two woman, both (presumably) loved by Holly, will respond to it.  We can’t help but wonder if Holly’s testimony will ease or intensify their grief.  We long to HEAR that testimony.


The set is Anna and Holly’s apartment.  At first the Stage Left platform doesn’t make architectural sense, until we realize it’s an office area for Holly, metaphorically raised above ground level like an impotent escape.  The set makes sense when we see how it’s used in The Wishing Place,   It’s often surprising how recognition of the constraints of repertory design leads me to overlook what I would normally carp about (architectural inconsistencies are a pet peeve of mine).  But this rationalization makes sense, at least to me.


The Manuscript is one of the strongest plays of the year, a grief-drenched encounter of two characters whose only point of contact is a shared love for the woman who voluntarily took herself out of their lives.  Playwright Matthew Hoffman and director Peter Hardy have collaborated to deliver a compelling look at love and loss, and a vivid reminder that just because same-sex marriage is now legal, it doesn’t mean it will always (or ever) be accepted by those who need to accept it the most.



THE WISHING PLACE by Beverly Austin


In contrast to The Manuscript, The Wishing Place quickly abandons a realistic tone in favor of a lyrical serenade into the lives of two neighboring families in mid-60’s Georgia.  We know we’re experiencing something different when we realize the first character to talk to us is the lake near which the families live.  A lake who complains about the foolish boy trying to catch fish the lake KNOWS aren’t the least bit hungry.  We soon meet Henry and Jo and Vincent, a black family making a hard-scrabble life as handyman, maid, farmer.  Son Vincent wants to make his fortune, and he hits upon the idea of raising quails for rich hunters who want their prey handed to them on a platter and are (perhaps) willing to pay for it, a plan not as outlandish as it seems.  Rich folk, y’know, will pay for (almost) any service. 


Vincent enlists the help of his friend Richard and the “girl next door,” Diane.  Diane’s Mama is a widowed teacher (Libby) whose wayward jazz musician husband is long gone.  Diane and Libby rely on the neighbors to help out with household tasks and repairs, because, well, teaching is a full-time job and there is a daughter to support.  Richard and Diane are young and hormonal and flirtatious, but Diane is not willing to be more than friends.  Daddies, even long-dead wayward Daddies, leave lessons that cannot be “swept out of the kitchen.”


These are characters truly in tune with nature, a fact underscored by the fact that each actor gets to elegantly talk in the persona of part of that nature – the lake that begins the play, a hunting dog that would rather point than fetch, a  young deer not too curious about the humans with whom he shares the lakeside, a wild dog who ruins the quail-raising plans of the teenagers, an ice storm that stirs up the plot more than it stirs up the landscape.


Language is graceful, emotions are on the sleeve, and old wounds are planted deep.


And over it all is the musician (the talented George Kotler-Wallace), sitting above the set, rapturously adding smooth jazz guitar and banjo to enhance the mood, consistently reminding us of he-who-has-gone, Libby’s wayward husband who may have left behind more than memories and regret and long-forgotten riffs.   The only question remains is will there be any forgiveness, will the deeds of the dead man forever engender misery and tragedy?


This was admittedly a difficult play to “get into,” as the first scenes are more mood-setting than expositional.  Even the first scene with characters (a berry-picking lark with Richard and Diane) is so drenched in adolescent awkwardness and cockiness, with poetry and warmth, that we leave the scene hardly even registering their names, only their artless connection.


But, as the characters gradually reveal themselves, as the relationships emerge, as the past begins to exert its dominance, I found the situation more involving, the out-of-the-box style more effective, the melodic language more transcendent.  My only quibble is with the varied level of performance on view.  One character tended to mumble and swallow their lines to near-incomprehensibility.  Setwise (Jo’s kitchen stage right, Libby’s on the stage left platform), the door to Libby’s domain was obviously not secured enough in the set-up between performances  and shook precariously every time it was used, even not remaining closed when it very clearly needed to.   But, again, it’s one of the risks of repertory work, and may be fixed as the run continues, and is certainly only worth mentioning, not criticizing.


Still there was a lot of good work going on here.  I really liked Sheri Wilson’s Jo and Nancy Powell’s Libby, two women who should be joined-at-the hip friends, but who steadfastly retain a 60’s era Georgia racial divide that could never be reconciled with any avowed affection.  Aliya Kraar is sprightly and radiant as Diane and has a real chemistry with Caleb Wilkinson’s Richard.  Henry (and the Lake) are played by David Rucker III, and Vincent is played by Terry Kiser, both of whom have moments of distinction, especially in their “nature” characters.   I suspect I saw the show after a long tech week, and I am confident my performance quibbles will evaporate as the cast becomes more comfortable with the show.


Director Ellen McQueen, whose work I always respect and enjoy, has done full justice to Beverly Austin’s beautifully structured script.  It’s always clear what the actors are playing (okay, it took me a minute to catch on to “ice storm”), and the various connections and reveals have all the required focus to transcend the era and the moments lost to garbled lines.


Yes, The Wishing Place may be a challenge for an audience.  But I have faith in the Essential Festival’s patrons, I have faith in the beauty of the writing of this piece, I have faith in this cast and production team, and, for me, it was well worth any effort in the process.




So, what lessons can we absorb from seeing both of these plays?  The obvious is the effect our passing leaves on those left behind.  And, after seeing both plays, I couldn’t help but remember how the passings along my life affected me, how I hope my own passing will affect my spouse and daughter and siblings and friends.  I can’t help but consider my own legacy, the accoutrements of my life that will be abandoned or embraced by those I leave behind.


But, in the final analysis, it shouldn’t matter to me.  I’ll be gone.  Holly’s legacy is her book, a book that may either bring her Mother and Wife closer together or drive them farther apart.  Libby’s husband left behind memories of melodies and {Deleted by the Spoiler Police}.  How the survivors accept that legacy is the point of the play, besides reminding us that life itself can be a jazz melody with unexpected riffs and tragedy-driven blues.


One of these plays is a realistic drama, two characters at odds.  The other is a song, an almost improvised jam with players playing different characters, melodies and harmonies elegantly juxtaposed.  One is starkly performed, emotions in full view; the other perhaps needs a little more rehearsal to fully gel.  One is drenched in the gender politics of today, the other gently evocative of the class and race politics of the South in the ‘60’s.  Both plays are impressive additions to the Essential Festival history of impressive new works.  Both playwrights are talents to watch, skilled with dialogue, with character, with style, with story.


In the final analysis, then, it is up to those who survive us to create their own acceptance or denial of our legacies.  And that’s not a bad lesson to glean from two such similarly dissimilar plays.


     --  Brad Rudy   (   #EssentialFestival2023   #TheManuscript   #TheWishingPlace)


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