The three plays that constitute the Morrison Theatre Company's evening of one-acts, High Crimes and Misdemeanors, are based on a short-story collection of the same name by Evergreen resident Joanne Greenberg. Greenberg is the author of several works of fiction; her most famous novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, is a searching and deeply empathetic study of a young girl's madness that was one of the defining books of the early '60s.
Though Greenberg's short stories are magical, evocative and full of humor, they're not written for the stage. Playwright Walter L. Newton has done his best to translate from one medium to the other, but two of the evening's three offerings don't really work. Both "On Tiptoe Must They Leave the Pious of Israel" and "They Live" are talky and static, despite the quirky concepts they explore and the strength and grace of Greenberg's language. ("Your body has mass," a suicide facilitator remarks kindly to her client, who wants an easy death. "You cannot be extinguished so simply.")
"On Tiptoe" is perhaps the least successful of the three pieces. It concerns a garrulous, irritating woman who shows up at the home of her new neighbors -- non-practicing Jews -- and proceeds to badger and blackmail them into re-evaluating their values and religion. She's in the tradition of a long line of fictive holy fools, but nothing she says is particularly compelling or insightful. In addition, the script contains too much preaching, and it's impossible to figure out why her neighbors don't simply close the door on her. In fact, you wish they would. Part of the problem lies with Paige Lynn Larson's performance in the role. Her speech is flute-like and fast-flowing, and it seems detached from her thoughts. As the bewildered couple, Mark Putt and Karalyn Star Pytel are pleasantly low-key, if a little stiff.
The second play is about Marjorie Weber, a woman whose profession involves murder for hire and helping would-be suicides achieve death. She's visited by a suicidal client, and they have a long discussion about the meaning of life and death -- "All deaths must serve a purpose" -- and the nature of evil. Satan is not God's opposite, but his servant, Marjorie explains, because it is only through evil that we can define good. Clearly, she believes that her chosen profession helps carry forward this work. Suzanne Gagnon has a nice, clear presence that's perfect for Marjorie, who approaches the work of killing with the calm of a housewife cutting the dead heads off roses. Nancy Thomas is effective as the client, and Karalyn Star Pytel prances back on stage for a hilarious, unhinged turn as a hippie girl who wants to kill her father.
The last play of the evening is the best. "Things in Their Season" concerns a beloved rabbi, his three students and their study of the Torah. When the "boys" find out that their rabbi is dying, they decide to steal him some time, which they believe is being stored by the government and sold clandestinely at a Cheyenne plant as Quiet Time Bottled Spring Water. There's some debate about whether the end -- saving the life of a good man -- justifies the theft, and also about whether it's God or man who makes the rules, but the beauty of this droll piece resides more in the simplicity and resonance of the image at its center. When two of the students fight over a bottle of water (one of them, figuring the rabbi has enough for his needs, wants to take it to his cancer-stricken sister), and water spills all over their hands and the floor, it's a genuinely shocking moment.
Most of the performances here are very strong. Robert Kramer brings depth, feeling and intelligence to the role of the leading student plotter, Woodrow. Tony Catanese is wonderful as the neurotic, gullible, Woody Allen soundalike Becker; and Geoff Wodell brings a deep-chested integrity to the role of the third student, Stein. Albert Banker perfectly embodies the wise, twinkling rabbi of Jewish lore; he makes us understand how Jewish tradition nourishes and endures but must eventually be taken forward by younger and more questioning minds. Robbie Glantz is the rabbi's soothing wife, Shifra, and Alan Hall the uncomprehending cowboy who sells the boys their water.
In all, the evening does precisely what community theater should: It reveals the work of a nationally acclaimed local writer to her neighbors, allows artists to experiment, gives untrained actors a chance to work with those more experienced, and communicates to a packed audience the joy of making art. The company's high-spiritedness and sense of mutuality are exemplified in the way director Rick Bernstein makes his scene changes: While the rabbi sleeps in an armchair, the rest of the cast revolves around him, shifting furniture, putting things into place, helping unfurl the imaginative, painted backdrops. Look, the company seems to be saying, we're not faking anything. We're using the resources we have and making magic right in front of you.
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