Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Passing Strange
Brown, who is African American, has some twenty dramatic works to his credit, many of them dealing based in historical contexts that address relations between the Black and white races in America in the context of yesteryear. A Play by Barb and Carl draws on a different kind of history–his own, along with that of his wife and creative partner, Barbara Rose Brown. Ms. Brown has served as Mr. Brown's dramaturg throughout his long career, a role she defines in the play as "being the guardian of my husband's voice in writing his plays." Several years ago, Ms. Brown had a stroke that impaired the entire right side of her body and left her with aphasia, robbing her of the ability to speak or write. For two people whose relationship is intricately tied to a passion for words, this was especially devastating.
A Play by Barb and Carl charts the course of the couple's initial reaction to this calamity, both within their own psyches and in the context of their marriage. That Ms. Brown is credited in the program as dramaturg for this play gives us assurance that she has prevailed, at least to a degree, and is once again able to practice the craft that gives her so much satisfaction and is a defining aspect of her marriage. That is a very welcome kind of spoiler for how their story turns out, and does not in any way diminish the poignancy and insight that is dispensed in the course of the one act play.
There are three characters in A Play by Barb and Carl: Barb (Kimberly Richardson), Carl (JoeNathan Thomas), and an unnamed Healthcare Worker (Laura Esping). All three give razor-sharp performances that serve the difficult subject with honesty, clarity and compassion. At the start Barb experiences the first sign of something being wrong, warning signs that she overlooks–to her peril. Then the attack, the stroke. We know it is coming, yet still feel our throats constrict, our chests tighten with the clear message–there but for fortune go you or I.
From this point forward, we see and hear from both Barb (through interior monologues spoken aloud by Richardson) and Carl regarding the feelings this event has had on their lives, as individuals and as a pair whose long-term partnership and love has faced many challenges before, but never one like this. We witness their efforts to communicate directly with one another, Barb's voice emitting grunts at the start, eventually able to form words that, with what appears to be great pain and concentration, erupt from her throat. The more she struggles and hesitates to unleash a word, the more closely Carl leans in to draw it out, bending down after she manages "I ... want ..." to plead with her to take the next step–"What, what do you want baby?," his eyes searching as if he might see the words pop of her mouth as personalized smoke signals, meant to be read by him alone. When she manages to sputter out the words "I don't want to live," rather than despair, Carl celebrates: "Baby, that's five words! A complete sentence!"
The Healthcare Worker introduces herself with the term "professional" inserted in front of her title, designating her considerable training and licenses, and not the investment in Barb's health or care that distinguishes her from Carl. She uses that her status as a "professional" to pull rank on Carl's protests that he knows his wife better than anyone, and therefore understand her needs. It turns out that what is required is for both to stay strong in their convictions about what they have to offer.
The Healthcare Worker at times acts as a physician, at other times a nurse, occupational therapist, or speech clinician. It might have been humane for the playwright to give her a name, but anyone who has been through the blurred ordeal of a health emergency and its aftermath can identify with the sense of those professional health care workers cycling through our days like a rolodex that continues to spin, a whirl of names and credentials that can make us dizzy if we try to discern all the details. And we can identify with the helplessness a parent or partner feels when they ask such a health care professional "They'll be okay, won't they?" and the professional gravely responds "We'll do our best." Who doesn't share the thought that Carl here puts into words–"That's not good enough!"?
Richardson, always an exceptionally adept physical actor, conveys the fortitude with which Barb approaches the task of rebuilding her life, from finding words to learning to walk to coming to grips with how hard these most basic elements of life have become. Thomas reveals the host of feelings anyone in his situation might expect: anger, resentment, inadequacy, sadness and, always visible through the storm, love. The two actors form an indelible pair, expressing their unshakable union through their eyes as much as words.
Esping brings an effective balance of honey and vinegar to her portrayal of the healthcare worker–at times disheartening and coldly clinical, but at other times remarkably helpful and empathic. What she understands, and eventually manages to pass along to the two individuals in her care–for not only Barb, but Carl is dependent upon her and the likes of her–is that, whatever other therapies and drugs may be employed, nothing is more critical to Barb's recovery than patience and time.
By its nature, the play allows for little in the way of movement, but is staged effectively by Brown, directing his own work. All three actors are always visible on stage, with Alex Clark's lighting cuing us into where our attention needs to be, as well as to shifts into interior monologue. The spare setting is dominated by a background painting that suggests neural synapses, lighting up in rhythm with their pulsations. C. Andrew Mayer provides the sounds that add authenticity to this journey.
About Illusion's new home ground: their theater is housed in a new four-story addition to the Center for Performing Arts, a former convent in south Minneapolis. Illusion has traded their proscenium stage for a thrust, with smaller seating capacity so that all seats are close to the performers. It seems ideal for smaller productions, such as its current one, though might be limiting for larger ones, so perhaps that indicates Illusion's direction moving forward. I will miss the exceptional view toward the theaters of Hennepin Avenue, especially lit up at night, from the lobby of their eighth-floor downtown location, but otherwise, the new space should serve Illusion and their audiences well.
A Play with Barb and Carl is a sobering work, but also a beautifully wrought dramatic love letter. It offers up information on the subjects of dramaturgy, aphasia, and the financial burdens of catastrophic health crisis. What it does best, though, is to unabashedly depict the essential role of love, tempered by patience, to pull through this or any crisis.
A Play by Barb and Carl runs through April 30, 2022, at Illusion Theater, Center for Performing Arts, 3754 Pleasant Avenue South, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: Name Your Price tickets, starting at $5.00, suggested fair market price, $35.00. For tickets and information about Illusion Theater call 612- 339-4944 or visit illusiontheater.org.
Playwright and Director: Carlyle Brown; Dramaturg: Barbara Rose Brown; Scenic Design: Dean Holzman; Costume Design: Barb Portinga; Lighting Design: Alex Clark; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Scenic Painter: Laura Hohanshelt; Technical Director: Aaron Schoenrock; Stage Manager: Rachael Lantow.
Cast: Laura Esping (Health Care Worker), Kimberly Richardson (Barb), JoeNathan Thomas (Carl).