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Between the Bars

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - September 30, 2021

Photo Caption: Carol Todd and Christopher Mowod
Photo by Mati Gelman
Theater often prefers artistic truth over literal truth for the simple reason that the former tends to provide a far more engrossing experience for an audience. We are supposed to contribute to the evening by suspending our disbelief and allowing ourselves to get swept up in the events as the story unfolds. Unfortunately, Lynn Clay Byrne's prison drama, Between the Bars, opening tonight at HERE Arts Center, adheres too closely to capturing moments of the reality of its subject matter by offering up what amounts to a series of snapshots rather than a compelling plot or a driving theme.

The play, subtitled "Memories from the Visit Room," takes place in the visiting room of a county jail, not unlike ones where both the playwright and director Benjamin Viertel have said they have recollections of sitting in for awkward conversations with incarcerated family members under the watchful eyes of guards, along with other families attempting to have similar conversations.

A cast of seven portrays 15 different characters who cross paths in an open space that looks like any number of institutionalized settings: a few scattered folding chairs, industrial overhead fluorescent lights, and a couple of soda and snack machines off to one corner. It is an uninviting space where, as one character puts it, "the air smells like it's been recycled from a funeral home."

The inmates are men whose crimes are mostly tangentially examined and whose personalities are sketched in shorthand: the angry one, the naïve one, the bullied one, and so forth. Their visitors are the women in their lives: girlfriends, wives, and mothers who routinely make the long trek to try to have heart-to-heart talks in a place that precludes much beyond the superficial.

Perhaps the most dramatically compelling of the visitors is Arlene (well played by Carol Todd, who perfectly captures the image of "trailer trash," loud and inappropriate in dress, bearing, and behavior). Arlene is the mother from hell, who holds her son Chad (Christopher Mowod) in her thrall through a combination of dependence and humiliation that he is unable to break. Their relationship, and the toll it takes on Chad, comes closest to providing the play with a narrative arc.

Towards the end, Arlene has a moment when she uncharacteristically asks, "why can't a jail be like a treatment center, somewhere you graduate from instead of sitting, vegetating, getting nowhere?" It's not hard to imagine that this question lies at the heart of the intent of Between the Bars. But there is insufficient character development or empathy building to get to the rallying cry for prison reform. Instead, we are mostly left with the "sitting, vegetating, getting nowhere" part.

Between the Bars
Through October 3, 2021
HERE Arts Center, 145 6th Avenue
Enter on Dominick, one block south of Spring
Tickets and current Performance Schedule: