Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

The North Plan and
Vincent in Brixton

Madi Destefano and Dan Hodge
Photo by Paola Nogueras
The North Plan is filled with violence, profanity and paranoia. It's also downright funny. Jason Wells' play is a vision of the near future in an America gone dangerously astray, and its political bent is sure to alienate some. But its audacious and irreverent attitude makes Theatre Exile's production a wild ride.

The play's title refers to REX 84, an actual plan drawn up by the White House in 1984 to suspend the Constitution and place the nation under martial law in the event of a national emergency (the "North" in the title is Oliver North, who wrote the plan). In The North Plan, set in the near future, that emergency has begun—the Department of Homeland Security is making random arrests, citizens have been moved to camps outside major cities, and the Army and the Marines are facing off against each other on opposite ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. Meanwhile, in a police station in rural (and fictional) Lodus County, Missouri, a mid-level State Department bureaucrat named Carlton Berg has been ordered detained by Homeland Security officers so they can find an electronic database of potentially threatening citizens he has hidden. Carlton realizes the only chance he has of escaping—or at least preventing DHS from finding the database—lies with Tanya Shepke, the woman locked up in the holding cell next to his. But Tanya is a loose cannon who interrupts Carlton's tales of impending anarchy to rant about her DUI arrest, her no-good family, and her child custody battles. Can Carlton put the future of democracy into the hands of this irresponsible, bigoted and not-too-bright piece of trailer trash?

One of The North Plan's greatest strengths is that it takes an unconvincing circumstance and makes it credible through the accumulation of detail. It's regrettable, then, that Wells resolves his story in act Two via some ridiculous farcical twists involving mistaken identity and a pair of DHS agents who turn into idiots when the plot demands it. But until that point, The North Plan works marvelously well, especially when it examines how ordinary Americans behave when faced with extraordinary circumstances.

Tanya is a great comedic showcase role, and Madi Distefano makes the most of it. But director Joe Canuso gets nuanced, committed performances from his entire cast. For proof, watch the way Dan Hodge's Carlton dissolves in silent exasperation whenever Tanya fails to comprehend his simple instructions. Or the way Mark Cairns' police chief proves with sturdy resolve that he's no rube. Or the way Aimé Donna Kelly's administrative officer captures the conflicted soul of a woman torn between the law and justice. Or the way Carl Granieri's hotshot DHS officer oozes condescension, while Robert DaPonte, as his stooge, tries (unsuccessfully) to assert his own importance. Meghan Jones' unadorned police station set is convincing.

The North Plan sometimes bites off more than it can chew, but it succeeds because Canuso's explosive production makes its nightmarish scenario seem scarily possible.

The North Plan runs through March 3, 2013, and is presented by Theatre Exile at The Latvian Society, 531 North 7th Street (at Spring Garden Street), Philadelphia. Tickets are $10-$37, with discounts available for groups and student rush tickets available, and may be purchased at

Brian Cowden, John Jarboe and
Clare Mahoney

Photo by Mark Garvin
Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton is a play about a famous artist where we don't see the art—and we may not recognize the artist. It deals with a little-known period in the life of Vincent Van Gogh: in 1873, at age 20, Van Gogh moved from Holland to London to work for the British office of a Dutch art dealer. The play imagines his life in a boardinghouse, as he gets drawn into a houseful of secrets and sorrow while pursuing love in unexpected ways. The character we see here is not the brash, bearded madman we associate with Van Gogh but a sincere, judgmental, sometimes insensitive young man learning his way in the world. He has not yet developed into genius or psychosis, but we can see the signs of both if we know where to look.

Director Kate Galvin's production has an easygoing pace and a contemplative, romantic tone. Thom Weaver's set grounds it in tangible reality, converting the Walnut Street Theatre's Independence Studio into a working kitchen with the audience arranged in rows along facing walls. We can practically touch Vincent's landlady Mrs. Loyer as she brews tea and cuts up vegetables for a stew. And the cozy surroundings help us feel how much she is transformed by the shy stranger who upsets her domestic routine. (I should note, however, that from my seat in the second row, a few things—including the play's striking final image—were hard to see.) Weaver's soft lighting works its own kind of magic, especially in an early morning scene when it replicates the first rays of dawn.

Brian Cowden's Vincent remains sweet and likable even in his most disagreeable moments. But the play really belongs to Mary Martello, whose Mrs. Loyer is a complex, moving portrait of hopes raised and dashed. There are also poignant turns by Clare Mahoney as Mrs. Loyer's delicate daughter, John Jarboe as an artistic but practical boarder, and Liz Filios as Vincent's obstinate sister.

With its quiet passages and its intimate setting, the Walnut's Vincent in Brixton is engrossing and affecting.

Vincent in Brixton runs through March 10, 2013, at the Walnut Street Theatre Independence Studio on 3, 825 Walnut Street, Philadelphia. Tickets are $30 - $40, and are available by calling the box office at 215-574-3550, or online at or

-- Tim Dunleavy

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