Regional Reviews: Wisconsin, SE
Feeding Beatrice: A Gothic TaleForward Theater Co.
The action starts with an argument between a husband, Lurie Walker (Jamal James, fresh from a solid turn as Laertes in the outstanding American Players Theatre's recent production of Hamlet) and wife, June (Candace Thomas). They have bought an old house in a "nice" (i.e., mostly white) neighborhood and are concerned that their neighbors won't come to their open house. They're also concerned about money (at her insistence, they live mostly on bread and margarine, to cover the expense of fixing up the house) and their six-year struggle to have children (in fact, they've given up and accepted that they must adopt).
Lurie and his brother, Leroy, are in the upstairs bathroom discussing the probability that anyone will show up at the planned house party. Lurie and June just moved the bathtub, and Leroy is needed to fix the plumbing. (Leroy thinks that the couple should have moved to a Black neighborhood.) Lurie doesn't mention to Leroy that, when they moved the bathtub they uncovered the body of a woman, apparently mummified under the floor. They covered it up again with cement. While the men are wagering, the doorbell rings–their first guest!
At the door is Beatrice (Alexandra Salter), a charming teen and in fact the only guest. She appreciates the edible goodies offered by the Walkers but actually craves raspberry jam, which June fortunately makes at home. Salter immediately takes the reins of the show as the alternately winsome and commanding–ghost.
It takes a while for the Walkers to catch on that the girl who shows up mysteriously at all hours, who doesn't seem to have parents and who subsists on jam and milk, is actually the physically solid ghost of the body they discovered in the bathroom. Beatrice gradually takes over the couple's life, in the hopes that she will be able to escape this suburban purgatory and be promoted to heaven. The Walkers rebel, though not before June is captivated by the girl. Beatrice makes a pass at Lurie, then tells June that he made a pass at her. An unexpected but logical ending after the Walkers regain their freedom triggered an ovation among the almost-full house of the 300ish-seat theater at the performance I attended.
Salter might as well have had the part of Beatrice written for her, and she fills its corners with verve. James, as Lurie, is more than a sturdy supporter of his wife–he alternates between that and taking the traditional male role in the family. Thomas has a difficult role as June–she must grow from the worried wife to a possibly possessed creature. It's hard to stay in character when your character changes under you. Sherrick Robinson's Leroy adds a layer of common sense and humor that the play badly needs.
Feeding Beatrice is full of moments where Beatrice, brought up in the age of Shirley Temple, offers blandly racist observations about "Negroes" and "you people." Even when she learns that these people are called Blacks, she continues to spill these remarks, which she got from her abusive father, the source of her spirit's agony. (Well, her mother's killing her and entombing her under the floorboards might have been a factor.) The politically incorrect utterances caused the racially mixed audience to gasp.
The set (Noele Stollmack) is a multi-tiered affair combining kitchen, dining room, foyer, and upstairs bathroom. The bathroom blocks some of the action in that room, notably the attempted-seduction scene if you are sitting house left. It's tough to satisfy all the patrons in a thrust theater.
The sound effects (Joe Cerqua), supposedly of the house settling, sound more like a ship going down–and breaking up in the process. Not a relaxing dwelling to live in.
Uphoff Gray's direction is discreet enough to not be pushy. The story moves along at a brisk enough pace not to tire out the audience for 2-1/2 hours. All the elements of the production work to wrap an audience up in a bizarre and unsettling, but gripping tale.
Forward Theater Co.'s Feeding Beatrice: A Gothic Tale runs through November 20, 2022, at the Playhouse Theater, Overture Center, 201 State St., Madison WI. For tickets and information, call 608-258-4141, email email@example.com, or visit forwardtheater.com.
Playwright: Kirsten Greenidge