Regional Reviews: St. Louis
"I don't know, I've never seen it," I shrugged, referring to the Netflix series. I spend so much time in darkened theaters, how can I commit to a long-term relationship with my television? And at least in theater, no one interrupts. (Except for dramatic emphasis, as when Mama Rose enters in Gypsy.)
Run-On Sentence is not a musical, but it would make for a very gritty modern opera. This 90-minute drama had its premiere in 2016 in the prison town of Vandalia, Missouri, as the culmination of 70 hours of intimate interviews with female inmates, conducted by playwright Stacie Lents. And in this first professional production of her script, with splendid local actresses, it has the stark air of realism in it, thanks to director Rachel Tibbetts. Everything in the story is strained because the only thing holding these five women together is their fragile, frayed relationships. Sometimes they are like Mama Rose, strident and controlling; sometimes they are as heartbreaking as Dainty June and Baby Louise. This is where we are, as a nation of theatre in 2018: even out here, a lot of people take it very seriously.
It all centers on Mel, who's sentenced to life without parole (hence the title) for murdering her father when she was 15. The substance of hope for her release is nonexistent, at first. And as fearlessly played by Taleesha Caturah, when suddenly faced with the prospect of giving up her long-held sense of resignation, Mel suffers a withdrawal rage like an angry bout of the nicotine fits. The other inmates find their daily measure of hope in whether or not a certain kind of cookies or potato chips might come in to the prison shop, where they can spend their 72 cents-a-day wages, bit by precious bit. But for Mel, life without parole puts her in a neutral gear, till an unexpected love comes along.
Every performance is unique and just the right "size" in this show. Wendy Renée Greenwood is Bug, capable of ranting loudly one moment, and then speaking very pleasantly the next, as suits her perception of the respect or dignity she's being dealt. On the face of it, Bug and Mel seem like the two biggest threats to anyone in there, but we quickly learn they fit into each situation in other ways too. Jamie McKittrick is tragic and psychologically unrecognizable as Giant, with the mind of a child: thrown in prison for a foolish act that only resembled breaking and entering. We like to think we're the freest nation on Earth, but we reportedly have the highest prison population in the world.
We also like to think every actor should be "chameleonic," but really very few are. Margeau Baue Steinau is truly one of those, this time giving us the look of a woman who's spent a long time in lock-up, measuring out each word with definitive clarity and directness, cutting through the feral scent in the air, steely as though she's had a knife at her throat more than once. And Kristen Strom escapes her own glamorous look, subtly showing how a new prison guard can be hardened by her surroundings, over the weeks and months covered in the story. Funny that all these actresses could be so "set free" in a play about prison.
It's Bess Moynihan, as Mary, who ignites the action of the play, shaking up the stasis like a match on gas. Eventually Mary is forced to reveal why she's really there, in a devastating monolog filled with guilt and remorse. But even that's not what it all hinges on, that's just there (I think) to illustrate the chilling mechanism of belonging or being cast out. More than once her impulsiveness gets the better of her, and we're pushed into a whole new way of looking at things. The end of the play is sudden but gentle, and will take your breath away.
Commissioned by Prison Performing Arts, Run-On Sentence continues through June 17, 2018, at the Chapel on Alexander, 6238 Alexander Drive, immediately south of Wydown Blvd., off Skinker Blvd., St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.slightlyoff.org.