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Minneapolis by Elizabeth Weir

Park Square delves into big-hearted storytelling with Family Values

You'll be relieved to hear that storyteller Jim Stowell does not deliver a moral lecture with a right-wing bias in his misleadingly named one-man gig, Family Values, at Park Square Theatre. Rather, it's a wry and engaging wander through troubled Belfast in Northern Ireland, with parallel moseying through his childhood in the redneck town of Magee in Southern Texas, where Anglos are armed with "a different gun for every occasion."

Bigotry, oppression and violence are the themes that unite these two unlikely towns. Stowell opens by sketching the harsh mesquite country along the Rio Grande where he grew up, a place with a fault-line as huge as the river's gorge - you are either Texan, white-American and have power, or you are Mexican, poor and heeled into the dirt. In Belfast, which he describes as a "dirty old town," Stowell found a similar divide when he visited in 1998. You are Protestant, consider yourself British and monopolize power, or you are Catholic, know passionately that you are Irish and are kept on the periphery of life.

Family Values

Under Richard Cook's direction, Stowell transitions smoothly between Magee and Belfast. When he's in Texas, Michael P. Kittel's lighting brightens to an overhead, sun-baked desert light that de-emphasizes the partially bricked-in columns of Steven M. Kath's set. In this light, Kath's backdrop panel of a rolling desert glows hot and dry. As Stowell shifts back to Belfast where most of the storytelling takes place, the light becomes angled and gloomy, as though filtered through low cloud, and Kath's brick suggestion-of-a-city lights into relief. The same back panel becomes somber green, an Irish hill.

In Belfast, Stowell meets Joseph, a likeable Catholic who lives with his parents in one of the poorest and most violent Belfast neighborhoods, the Ardoyne. Once he's assessed the Yankee Stowell and is satisfied that he's not a real Prod (Protestant,) Joseph invites him to stay with his family.

Stowell brings Joseph to life as a sympathetic young man who works and doesn't drink. Left to his own devices, Stowell cautiously wanders the alleys of the Ardoyne, trusting that his evident Americaness will protect him. On one of these walks, he meets a boy with a soccer ball who springs alive in Stowell's back and forth chat with the child.

The storytelling from Belfast is largely from the viewpoint of the oppressed Catholics. Joseph takes him to see a Peace Wall, massive barricades erected by the British to stop the fighting between shoulder-to-shoulder Catholic and Protestant neighborhoods. In a touching moment, Joseph mourns his 14 year-old sister's execution by members of the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force,) a vigilante group.

Stowell relates an encounter with a frightened British soldier wielding a sub-machine gun in an armored vehicle, his tone critical. I immediately thought of frightened young American soldiers patrolling in Iraq and was grateful when he illuminated the young British soldier's well-founded fear.

In Joseph's voice, he tells of the Shankill Butchers, who nearly murdered his drunken "Da," and of the bigoted RUD (Royal Ulster Defense), the North's Protestant police force. Stowell barely touches on the equally violent IRA (Irish Republican Army), although we do meet Maggie, a young IRA member who served hard time for attempting to blow up a bus with a bomb that she had strapped to her belly.

Stowell assumes a good Irish accent when he's speaking for the characters he brings to life, but this accent belongs to Ireland south of the border. The Belfast accent is all knees and elbows, and you'd need a trained ear to catch what was said. Perhaps Stowell opted for a more generic accent for the benefit of his American audiences.

The most dramatic part of Stowell's monologue belongs in McGee, when he takes us into a family gathering where the adults have been drinking for hours, and his maverick grandmother Lileth has a knife-wielding confrontation with his Uncle Turk, a man who wears his four guns at all times.

Stowell peels back the layers of hatred and prejudice to show the human faces underneath, and he ends on a note of hope, a plea for peace.

Family Values October 31 - November 16. Thursdays - Sundays. Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays 8:00 p.m. Sundays. 2:00p.m. $25. Park Square Theatre, Historic Hamm Building, 20, West Seventh Place, Downtown St. Paul. Call 651-291-7005.

Also:

Tiny Unravelling Muses' Ambush, by Maxine Klein, swings hard-hitting punches at Attorney General John Ashcroft's Patriot Act and the stifling of civil rights, as cases come before a kangaroo court that's reminiscent of McCarthyism. Subtle satire this ain't; it's brash and brave, droll and dark.

Ambush October 31 - December 6, Thursdays- Saturdays 8:00 p.m. $12.00. Unravelling Muses Studio, 308, Prince Street, St. Paul. Call 651-722-5510.


Photos: Petronella J. Ytsma



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Elizabeth Weir



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