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Dead End

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - May 3, 2017

The Dead End Kids: Lynn Mancinelli, Jon McCormick,
Regina Betancourt, and Emily Kratter
Photo by Pavel Antonov

Be warned before entering the world of the Axis Theatre Company and its artistic director Randy Sharp. They have a penchant for asking us to stare unblinkingly into some of life's darkest corners.

In 2015, the company gave us The Vast Machine, an examination of the heinous institution of slavery as seen through the eyes of the crew of a rogue slave ship, half of whose human cargo have already died in the hold. The previous year saw a chamber musical called Solitary Light, a haunting evocation of the notorious Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire from 1911 in which 146 garment workers lost their lives. Now, with its presentation of Sidney Kingsley's 1935 drama Dead End, Axis has taken on the bleak story of the Great Depression and has jolted it into sentience, like a patient awakened reluctantly from an anesthetized sleep.

Both Kingsley's original play and Axis's presentation of it paint a vivid portrait of the desperate and unfulfilled lives of a motley collection of homeless and near-homeless youngsters and adults brought to their knees by the economic nosedive. No money. No jobs. No prospects. No hope. For these characters, there is no "sunny side of the street," a fact that is reinforced throughout the entire production with its prolific use of a palette of stygian hues in Chad Yarborough's set design, Karl Ruckdeschel's costumes, and David Zeffren's shadowy lighting. Even the props (a deck of playing cards, a cigarette fashioned from a bit of horse manure, some dollar bills waved about by one of the few who has any money) are totally black.

Dead End, like others of Axis's productions, eschews traditional storytelling in favor of a more expressionistic approach. But unlike other abstract or surrealistic works you may be familiar with, the characters slowly emerge from a sea of nameless faces and types to take on an unexpected level of humanity and individuality.

Not much happens, at least not in the usual plot-driven theatrical sense; we are there to bear witness and perhaps to feel some degree of responsibility for our brethren. We watch as a group of restless, underfed, and purposeless street urchins (the so-called "Dead End Kids" later made famous in a series of films based loosely on this play) argue, fight, tease, threaten, and cling to each other in a world that gives them no support nor allows them to have any control over their lives. One of them suffers from tuberculosis. Another has spent time in a "reform school." Another gets into a knife fight and goes into hiding.

The play's adults are hardly better off. There is Gimpty (George Demas), a trained architect who can only dream helplessly of rebuilding the neighborhood and replacing the tenement slums with decent and affordable housing. Drina (Shira Averbuch), a young working class woman, longs to make a better life for herself and her younger brother Tommy (Jon McCormick) after she has been left to raise him on her own when their parents died. A couple of other characters who are better off financially are not immune to the harshness of life. Kay (Britt Genelin), for instance, is living with a man who treats her cruelly but who has enough money so she thinks she can manage without love. And there is Baby Face Martin (Brian Barnhart), a thug wanted by the police, who is hanging around in the hopes of seeing his mother one last time; when they do meet up, the encounter is painful to both of them.

Dead End is as far from a "feel good" play you are likely to come across. The depictions of the characters' lives may seem melodramatic and clich├ęd, but their experiences are rooted in reality, as the playwright well understood. The problems faced by Gimpty and Drina and Kay and the street kids (poverty, homelessness, joblessness, hunger) are still the lot of millions of people today. Randy Sharp, who directs the production, and the committed cast and crew, do an excellent job in bringing this stark play from the Depression era to a contemporary audience.

Dead End
Through May 20
Axis Theatre, One Sheridan Square between West Fourth and Washington
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix

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