Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Dirty Laundry

By Chris Davis

NOVEMBER 9, 1998:  Lillian Hellman’s plays have aged more gracefully than those of her peers. Seen any good Sherwood Anderson plays lately? Hellman’s subject matter is timeless and so simple. Lies destroy, money corrupts, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. In Hellman’s not-so-peachy-worldview, innocence (if there is such an animal) is as doomed as a chicken in the foxhouse. Sure, her plays are all horribly melodramatic, but all that melodrama can just add to the fun, so long as the players don’t fight it.

Germantown Community Theatre’s current production of Hellman’s Another Part of the Forest seems like a constant struggle between the gravity of the play’s themes and its often hokey (in a good way) dialogue. In Forest, Hellman has crafted a family of grotesque characters so good at being bad that the audience is seduced into dropping its moral guard and encouraged to revel in all that glorious badness. When I say the characters are grotesque, I do not mean that they are physically ugly, but rather grotesque as (forgive the name dropping) Stanislavsky described it, “a vivid and bold externalization based on such tremendous, all-embracing inner content that reaches the limits of exaggeration – the ideal of our theatre creativity.” Hellman has always seemed (to me anyway) to be close kin of Moliere, whose Tartuffe stood at the forefront of theatre’s most loveable dissemblers until Another Part of the Forest introduced the world to the family Hubbard. Under John Rhone’s (usually very capable) direction, the actors never quite get in the melodramatic groove. Their characterizations (with notable exceptions) are smaller than life, and Another Part of the Forest lumbers across the stage with very little sense of identity.

Another Part of the Forest is a Southern tale of mythological proportions. Set during the Reconstruction, Hellman shows a new world rising from the ashes of the Civil War, and her characters are clearly recognizable Southern types. There is the mighty patriarch Marcus Hubbard (played with ruthless zeal by Jim Palmer) whose vast fortune is slathered in blood. The brothers Hubbard are the Isaac and Ishmael of the New South. The heartless, calculating Ben ( Robert McIntosh) is the protean Southern conservative, while idiot man-child Oscar (Michael Gravois), who loves to fight, shoot, drink, and fall “deeply and sincerely in love with two-bit hookers,” is the great grandfather of all rednecks. Sister Regina (Ruth Heinz) is in bed (figuratively, if not literally) with whomever holds the family purse strings, and only the sweet and saintly mother (Jo Lynn Palmer), driven mad by the weight of an awful secret, is not out to draw blood. It’s juicy stuff, but only Jim Palmer is able to squeeze it for all it’s worth. Haunted by his misdeeds, Palmer is pure evil, and he stalks his selfish goals with glee. He is shameless and his withering glare is truly terrifying. As Hubbard’s God-haunted wife, Palmer’s real-life wife Jo Lynn Palmer does not fare nearly as well. Hubbard threatens to have his wife committed, and the way Jo Lynn plays it, he just might be justified in doing so. She is at her best when she keeps it simple, but her monologues are murky and fraught with tense, over-the-top hysteria.

As the dim-witted Oscar, Gravois could not be better. Looking like a blond Peter Lorre, he is committed to every ridiculous action, and he, along with his pay-to-play girlfriend (two-dimensionally rendered by Julie Reinbold Watson), is responsible for the evening’s best laughs. As the Machiavellian brother Ben, Robert McIntosh shuffles his feet around the stage. He wanders, for the sake of wandering, lacking any clear motivation for his movements. His lines sound recited, and worst of all, he rubs his hands together when he plots. The hand-wringing might be an okay choice were it allowed to be full and committed, but like his foot-shuffling, there is no life behind the action.

The wicked Regina Hubbard is one of my favorite female characters in the entire canon of American theatre. Perhaps this is because her manipulative personality closely resembles that of so many ex-girlfriends. Heinz gives her a wonderfully honest treatment, which is a cut-and-dry case of wrong-headedness. Regina is a consummate actress, capable of switching from honey-mouthed vixen to babe-in-the-woods with the bat of her big doe eyes. Regina’s ability to manipulate may come naturally. But she is keenly aware of what she is doing. Heinz makes her mousy and a little bumbling. Without a degree of grandness and a sense of supreme self-confidence, she is just another spoiled brat, and Regina Hubbard is by no means spoiled; she works hard, and earns everything she gets.

Skye Reynolds as Miss Birdie Bagtree deserves special mention. She is a wonderful combination of sweetness and raw nerves, and her simple-featured beauty perfectly suits a virgin sacrifice. As her brother John, Jeffery Evans is guilty of acting in the first degree. He arches his eyebrows to the rafters and expels breath in little staccato “huh[s]” for emphasis. His coarse acting job is topped only by Mick Vinson as a money-grubbing musician. This wildly exaggerated cartoon is a shining example of what not to do on the stage.

Although there are some truly fine performances in GTCT’s production, the actors never seem to click, and coming in at just under three hours, the show seems unending. A lighter, more detailed touch would have been much appreciated.

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