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Theatre in Review: Stew (Page 73 Productions/Walkerspace)

Nikkole Salter, Portia. Photo: Jeremy Daniel.

Storm might be an equally apt title for Zora Howard's new play, a brash domestic comedy until -- at the very last moment -- it isn't. The emotional squalls blowing through the kitchen belonging to the character known only as Mama are manifold, and they cut across three generations. (That kitchen, by the way, has been fully realized, down to the mysterious brown stain on one wall, by Lawrence E. Moten III, and it tells you plenty about its owner.) It is just past the crack of dawn and Mama, a woman of an age you shouldn't inquire about, is busy whipping up a stew to feed fifty at an event at her church; she hasn't had her first cup of coffee and already she is behaving like a holy terror.

As portrayed by the great, one-named actress Portia, Mama might be hell to live with, but she is heaven to watch. As the members of her family drag themselves into the room, she administers one hilarious verbal browbeating after another. When her younger daughter, Lillian, whines that she is tired, Mama replies. "You know who else was tired? Jesus was tired," then launches into her own vivid account of the Way of the Cross while everyone else roll their eyes. Dismissing a member of her church as "dirty," she says the poor woman opened her purse to offer a mint, and "I swear a whole army of roaches came marching out. Didn't scurry. Just came out marching like someone owed them money. Them roaches had purpose." And never for a second does she let anyone forget that she is the "founder and director emeritus of the Mt. Vernon High Drama League."

Behind the comedy, however, are an iron rectitude, an innate willfulness -- don't even think about asking after her health -- and a considerable store of bitterness. And, when her daughters fall short of her standards, which is often, her quietly infuriated stance makes adult women tremble and scramble to explain themselves. Mama is loaded with contradictions -- she's maddening, fascinating, and hilarious -- and she gives Portia the lead role she has deserved for far too long. She is reason enough to justify Stew's existence.

The director, Colette Robert, surrounds this formidable leading lady with a trio nearly as strong. Nikkole Salter proves equally expert at counterpunching and evasion as Lillian, Mama's thirtyish daughter, who has dropped in, seemingly out of the blue, for a visit, and whose husband mysteriously keeps not showing up. Toni Lachelle Pollitt has a nice line in passive-aggression as Nelly, Mama's seventeen-year-old daughter, who harbors a secret love affair -- he isn't her boyfriend, he's her man, she insists, a distinction that comes with implications -- along with another inconvenient fact that she wants kept on the QT. Holding her own is Kristin Dodson as Lil' Mama, almost an adolescent and tentatively looking to stand out in this house of drama by auditioning for the role Queen Elizabeth in Richard III. (That must be some theatre department, by the way; what do they follow it up with? An all-teen Dance of Death?)

Howard's method is to let all four characters have at each other, handing out plenty of salty, funny dialogue in generous dollops, especially when they compete furiously to tutor Lil' Mama in Shakespeare. "I be in plays. I be in all the plays," Nelly announces. "You in plays 'cause I was in plays," Mama says, dismissively. Sassing back, Nelly replies, "I'm in plays to redeem the family name after you wreaked havoc on the school musical all them years." This exchange is topped by a sequence, both riotous and dramatically riveting, in which Mama, deploying a sweet potato as a prop representing a murdered child, schools Lil' Mama in Elizabeth's lament for her lost sons.

For most of its running time, however, the most surprising thing about Stew is its conventionality. With its smooth rollout of family secrets, tightly coordinated conflicts, and abundance of backtalk, it is the kind of family fracas that could have been written in any one of several recent decades. (Sitting in Walkerspace, it occurred to me that this is exactly the kind of naturalistic drama that Jackie Sibblies Drury dismantles in Fairview, which debuted here a couple of years ago.) There are, however, little nagging oddities that should make one wonder: What exactly is the event at the church and why does nobody identify it? Why is Lil' Mama's church dress all-black? What is the source of the loud noise in the opening seconds -- a blow-out, a gunshot? You can't help wondering when the penny will drop; it finally does at the last possible moment, when Howard introduces a traumatic event that suggests Stew may not be a naturalistic drama at all. As Lillian tells Mama, "It's all in your head," a comment that suddenly seems to transcend its context, pointing to an author's intention that has been too carefully concealed up to this point.

The finale puts an unfortunate button on Stew, a play otherwise saved from overfamiliarity by vigorous writing, acting, and direction; the closer feels opportunistic, a feel-bad grand gesture that hasn't remotely been earned (and which has a slightly second-hand quality). One wonders if Robert might have done more to signal where the script is headed; also, while she handles the abundance of overlapping dialogue like a maestro conducting an orchestra, she also lets the volume rise to sometimes agitating levels.

Everything else about Stew is the work of pros, including Dominque Fawn Hill's subtly detailed costumes, Stacey Derosier's lighting, and Avi Amon's sound design -- which, between scenes, provides a series of unsettling hums and whines that give the broadest hint that things aren't as they seem.

Then again, Page 73 Productions is in the futures business and Howard is clearly going places. This kitchen is certainly worth a drop-in visit, to get to know both the women who inhabit it and the woman who created it. -- David Barbour

(3 February 2020)

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