In the Wake of the Welded | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

In the Wake of the Welded 

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Current River Theatre

at the Theatre Building

The woman sitting next to me at the Theatre Building was not partial to theater critics. Too many of them, she said, were far too concerned with taking plays apart, analyzing them down to the last detail. After all, she pointed out, people don't expect to get the same thing out of watching a play as they do out of reading a book. If they come to a play and are able to relate to some aspect of it, they go home satisifed.

It seems we've come to expect less of theater than we used to. Like this woman, if we're entertained, if we're able to relate, then we don't expect much more. We smile warmly at the gentle simplicity of Driving Miss Daisy or have a foot-stompin' good time at Pump Boys and Dinettes and are content. But anyone who's witnessed one of those few transcendent productions, the kind that dazzle, affecting us more profoundly than any book or film, spends a lot of time at the theater dissatisfied.

Current River Theatre's In the Wake of the Welded, by Jeffrey W. Mangrum, is in some ways a highly professional piece of work. It pushes all the right emotional buttons, and though it looks unfinished, it's intelligently crafted, with well-developed characters; this production is professionally acted and directed. And yet the play lacks any spark of originality.

As in most classic American plays, the focus of this one is family--the struggles that break families apart or weld them together. The setting is Little Rock, Arkansas. The play's heroine, Rachel Coulier, is a good-hearted schoolteacher so concerned with making other people happy that she's failed to find happiness in her own life. Her sister Patrice, the darling of the family, rocked its foundation a couple of years back when she declared that she was in love with Gil, a black Arkansas politician. After a long argument about Patrice dating a black man, Dad had a stroke. Even though Mom dresses him, takes him for daily strolls in the garden, and plays his Vivaldi on the stereo, Dad's been catatonic and in a wheelchair ever since. (That's the exposition.)

When the lights come up, we find ourselves in Rachel's apartment. She lives alone but can't get a moment's peace, what with the demands of her job, her family, and her busybody neighbor Paulina, who makes herself at home at Rachel's at all hours of the day and night. Rachel's life is further complicated by the needs of a working-class couple for whom she acts as something of a saint, supplying the sweet, childlike Darla Pearson with friendship and haircuts and teaching the honest welder Ephraim how to read.

Pesky Paulina initiates the play's climax. She insists that the Coulier family throw a Fourth of July party to bury the hatchet. Everybody is invited, including Gil and Patrice and Ephraim and Darla. The party starts off well enough. But Paulina's gun-toting racist husband causes no end of trouble, halting festivities with a premature bang. The play closes with messages about the importance of walking that fine line between establishing one's independence and maintaining family ties.

In the Wake of the Welded contains some beautiful moments. The scenes between the two sisters, their mother, and their mute father are especially well written. Mangrum's dialogue is crisp and believable, and his scenes are tightly constructed. But something is missing. The play seems the second installment of a trilogy whose first and last parts we should know. Too much of the family's past is unsatisfactorily explained, and the end is also unsatisfying, leaving a lot of questions up in the air.

Rachel is Ms. Perfect, too much a goody two shoes to be of interest. And although her struggle provides an adequate framework for the play, what is onstage seems both obvious and incomplete. We see Patrice and Gil interact in only one scene--yet it's their love that caused Dad's stroke. Similarly Darla and Ephraim's struggle to survive is treated as a subplot, and yet it seems potentially a lot more interesting than the Couliers' problems. The climactic party scene is awkward--as if characters from different plays were suddenly being brought together. Maybe that's how real-life parties are, but onstage it seems forced.

But most disturbing about In the Wake of the Welded is the predictability of every scene. The revelations, the none-too-subtle symbolism of welding, the father's momentary emergence from catatonia all seem culled from a yellowed scrapbook of theatrical plot devices. To those who enjoy taking trips down well-traveled roads, In the Wake of the Welded might be worth seeing. But anyone looking for surprises or magic or something new had better look elsewhere.

Director Megan Vaughan has a first-rate cast. Laura Kellogg and Marc Vann as Darla and Ephraim deliver outstanding performances. Elaine Carlson as Patrice is also quite good, though her stage time is limited; she evokes the pride and despair of the perfect daughter who doesn't want to be perfect anymore.

The technical side of the production is a serious problem. Julie K. Martino's great-looking set rotates 180 degrees after every scene to show a new locale. But the banging and clunking that accompany every clumsy set change destroy the drama of the preceding scene. And to get the perfect set, doors are unhinged and rehinged and props shoved around; it may have seemed like a good idea, but the process is far too fussy for the play's simple set requirements.

Blasting Vivaldi or Albinoni's Adagio or welding sound effects at top volume over these set changes does not make matters any better. I'd like to request a five-year moratorium on the theatrical use of Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, Albinoni's Adagio, Pachelbel's Canon, and any piano piece by Satie. Please give this music a rest. It may be predictable theater, but we should at least have some unpredictable music.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Vaughn.


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