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New Jersey by Bob Rendell

Handicapped People ... : Old Fashioned, Richly Entertaining Family Melodrama


Rachel Pickup and
Lori Hammel

It is a summer evening in 1968. We are in the ballroom of the DuPont Hotel in Wilmington where the Delaware Association for the Handicapped is holding a black tie fundraiser to honor their quadriplegic founder and chairwoman, Agnes Sheehan. She is escorted by her able-bodied sister Theresa, who is filling in for Agnes' regular caregiver. Over the course of an eventful, emotion-laden evening, pent-up resentments between the sisters burst into the open, revealing family secrets and the emotional turmoil which is an inescapable component of living.

As depicted in Premiere Stages' exemplary production of the new play Handicapped People in Their Formal Attire, these events make for an unexpectedly lively, emotionally involving and satisfying evening of audience friendly popular entertainment.

Well rewarded by the freshness and added content which they bring to the party, playwright Kathryn Grant admirably places handicapped people in the forefront of a melodrama of a style which has been a staple of emotional dramas of a type often aimed at female audiences dating back to the dawn of talking pictures. These films were often underrated and dismissed as "sudsy" and unrealistic by male critics because of their unabashed and widespread appeal to women. Like the best of them, Handicapped People comments on American social values of its period. Wilmington was the scene of a race riot following the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King and, on the night of the fundraiser, rioting broke out in the National Guard occupied city. The play illuminates widely experienced and deeply felt issues involving family interactions and dealing with disappointment and stress. Physically handicapped or not, even the best of us do not always cope well.

The underlying theme of the play is that each and every one of us has handicaps to overcome. The debilitating effect of racism in America is a major issue here, along with a range of other social and familial handicaps which afflict each of the six characters depicted, three of whom do not have physical handicaps. Some audiences will be troubled that religious strictures are among the handicapping factors depicted.

Director John Wooten has created a well balanced, illuminating, finely acted production and makes excellent use of the large playing area of Joseph Gourley's richly detailed ballroom settings to deploy his actors. The suppleness of the set design is quite impressive. The placing of ballroom tables and chairs in various parts of the audience adds to the enveloping effect of the set. If you wish, feel free to sit at one of these tables.

Rachel Pickup, who has had a most successful career on major British stages and, to our good fortune, moved to New York a year ago, performs with extraordinarily verisimilitude and control as Agnes. Pickup never seeks our easy sympathy as she displays tensile strength and complexity of character without straying an iota from Agnes' physical reality. It is a performance that theatre lovers will cherish. John McGinty brings maximum grace and warmth to the role of the deaf and dapper Raymond, Agnes' romantic soul mate. The deep sensitivity that Kathryn Grant brings of the evolution of their relationship is beautifully realized in Pickup and McGinty's performances. McGinty has been active in deaf actors theatre companies.

Lori Hammel effectively conveys the sadness, disappointment, and chip on the shoulder attitude of Theresa which has resulted from a life of hard knocks and disappointment. David Harrell plays do-gooder Eddie, a Korean war veteran who has a mechanical hand prosthesis (Grant notes in her script that the "disability can be adjusted in order to accommodate actors with various conditions"). Harrell is likeable and sensitive as Agnes' partner in running the charity while not being able to control the frustration which events have begun to make him feel.

Roland Sands is a delightfully idiosyncratic Reverend Biggs, a black storefront minister who is working this night as Agnes' chauffeur. The racism and insensitivity subplot that emerges about Biggs may be a bit much to throw so strongly into the mix, but Sands handles the twists that come his way with aplomb. Ed Setrakian is a bit overly broad as Monsignor Cook, a key Handicapped Association supporter. The monsignor is a major player in this story who gets tipsy before his crucial second act scenes. I think that by playing his earlier scenes less broadly, the veteran Setrakian would leave more room to broaden his performance at the end without any excess.

Kathryn Grant's Handicapped People in their Formal Attire is likely the most entertaining new play seen in New Jersey this season. The Premiere Stages production is the best work that I yet have seen from this ambitious, socially conscious theatre.

Handicapped People in their Formal Attire continues performances (Evenings: Thursday - Saturday 8 pm/ Saturday - Sunday 3 pm) through July 29, 2012, at the Zella Fry Theatre in the Vaughn Eames Building on the campus of Kean University, 1000 Morris Avenue, Union, NJ 07083; Box Office: 908-737-7469; online: www.kean.edu/premierestages/

Handicapped People in their Formal Attire by Kathryn Grant; directed by John Wooten

Cast
Agnes………………………….Rachel Pickup
Theresa………………………….Lori Hammel
Raymond……………………....John McGinty
Eddie…………………………….David Harrell
Reverend Biggs……………….Roland Sands
Monsignor Cooke………..Edward Setrakian


Photo: Roy Groething


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- Bob Rendell



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