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Shedding Load

Theatre Review by Howard Miller - February 7, 2023

Marlina Devery and Teddy Trice
Photo by Russ Rowland
Patience is a virtue while attending a performance of Shedding Load, a Varsity Theatre Company production opening tonight at 59E59 Theaters. Written by Varsity's founder Jessica Owens, the 75-minute play is a leapfrogging journey across many years, with multiple stops and switchbacks along the way. As such, it does take its sweet old time in peeling back the layers of one family's personal struggles amidst a cascading series of secrets, lies, and financial woes.

Shedding Load jumps around and among the years 1938 to 2014, all within a locale so specific that you might want to do some pre-show homework. That locale is the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn, about which the playwright assumes we have a lot of knowledge. Without much explanation for the benefit of the uninformed, it covers, among other things, the electrical blackout that hit the city in the summer of 1977, the looting and rioting that ensued, the "Son of Sam" murders, the significance of the racial makeup of Bushwick at that time, the rumored birth of hip-hop as an outgrowth of the looting, the so-called "blackout baby boom," and the later effects of gentrification on that neighborhood.

The tale that gradually unfolds is about an electronics store that burned to the ground during the blackout and looting of July 1977, and the long-term financial and personal impact on the family that owned it. Apart from the metaphoric meaning of the title, load shedding is what electrical companies do in an effort to protect a power plant when it cannot meet the demands placed on it. Unfortunately, it did not work on this occasion.

The play opens during the thunderstorm that preceded the blackout. We meet the first two members of the family at center: Trish (Marlina Devery) and her then-boyfriend and later husband Kenny (Teddy Trice), who are suddenly plunged into darkness in the family apartment that will be their home. They are soon joined by Trish's mother, a flashlight-carrying Nancy (Robyne Parrish), who comes to check on them.

At this point, shortly into the play, things are moving in a straightforward logical progression. But it isn't long before more and more characters are introduced until we have met all ten of them, representing the generations of Trish's grandfather, her parents, her own children, and a future son-in-law, along with assorted friends and neighbors. Most of them appear suddenly, across flashes of time. Yet, even with the help of having the bouncing years projected on the wall above a fireplace, it is easy to get lost as we are shuttled around and through separate scenes that come and go before we can begin to figure out who is who and their relevance to the plot.

All told, Shedding Load is challenging to parse. The cast and director Mia Walker do their best to turn a play that is mostly about ideas into a play about actual people. But the humanity only shines through sporadically, leaving us in the dark for far too long.

Shedding Load
Through February 18, 2023
The Varsity Theatre Company
59E59 Theaters, 59 E. 59th St., New York NY
Tickets online and current performance schedule: