Directed by Michael Menendian
Produced by the Raven Theater Company
Charles Fuller’s well-decorated military drama enlists little interest in Raven Theater’s new production.
It’s been over thirty years since Charles Fuller’s 1981 psychodrama, A Soldier’s Play, first opened Off-Broadway to immense fanfare. The original production succeeded in nabbing that year’s Pulitzer Prize, along with the Drama Critics’ Circle Award, the Outer Critics Circle Award, and the Obie Award for Distinguished Ensemble Performance. Originally produced by the Negro Ensemble Company—a frequent home for Mr. Fuller’s plays—its original cast included such heavy-hitters as Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson and Adolph Caesar. Its stage success led to a 1984 film adaptation—retitled A Soldier’s Story—with Washington and Caesar going on to revive their original roles. It too won several awards that year, including Academy Award nominations for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay.
Thus the prevailing sense of deflated expectations following a recent staging at Raven Theater. Director Michael Menendian’s current production, which opened this Monday, fails to push Fuller’s ensemble-driven masterwork past its germinal stages, surrendering its wryly observed psychological nuances to a crudely characterized melodrama. The story takes place at the United States Army’s Fort Neal in Louisiana at the tail end of World War II. Captain Richard Davenport (Franke Pete)—himself an officer of color in an army still segregated by race—is called in to investigate the murder of black Sergeant Vernon C. Waters (Antoine Pierre Whitfield). Sgt. Waters, universally loathed by the enlisted soldiers who served beneath him, had all but completely internalized the bigotry of his own racial oppression, setting himself to the task of purging the ranks of “lazy, shiftless Negroes” through acts of cruel malice. Thus Davenport’s investigation—told as a series of flashbacks—serves to shed light on the horrors of intraracial prejudice and the violence that follows in its wake.
Despite such evocative subject matter—remarkably still relevant in post-Obama America—Raven Theater’s production proceeds with all the psychological subtlety of a sledgehammer. Whitfield’s Sgt. Waters is downright dastardly, oscillating between hand-wringing insidiousness and blind rage. Thus Waters never opens up to the audience as equal-part victim of a segregated America, eschewing the central irony which underscores the whole of Fuller’s drama. In fact, Waters is so loathsome that his death elicits little more than apathy from the audience, undermining the tension of Davenport’s investigations so profoundly that their resolution warrants barely a shrug. To boot, Franke Pete’s turn as the clear-eyed investigator feels like little more than a vessel for some heavy-handed exposition. What’s missing is that crucial sense of Davenport’s own personal investment in the investigations. And because Davenport doesn’t seem to have a stake in the proceedings, the audience doesn’t either. And a potentially taut crime drama fizzles along…
Without Davenport serving as a much-needed emotional anchor, there is little to bring us into the story’s unfolding details. Even tensions between Davenport and the white Captain Charles Taylor (played by Tim Walsh with a Gomer Pyle-esque boobery) fail to elicit anything more than a few reactionary chuckles from the audience. Major plot points feel as though they’re mumbled through. And whole lines are dropped and/or flubbed—from nearly every member of the ensemble and on more than one occasion. Menendian’s blocking at times feels awkwardly perfunctory as characters attempt to maneuver through the set’s varying levels, and the scenic color palette—army regulation pea green, mud brown, and grays—all but blanch out beneath the amber lights into one big beige swath of dull.
Revivals of Fuller’s play—such as the 2005 production at Second Stage Theater—have met with a fair amount of critical success. That Raven Theater’s production has me wondering why is not a good sign. Perhaps with another couple weeks of rehearsal this production may have found its emotional footing. As is, it barely gets off the ground.
Anthony J. Mangini
Reviewed Monday, February 18th, 2013.
Running time is approximately 2 hours with one intermission.
A Soldier’s Play runs until March 30th, 2013. Raven Theater is located at 6157 N. Clark St. Tickets can be obtained through their box office at (773) 338-2177 or at their website (https://www.raventheatre.com/) Half-price tickets are available at Theater in Chicago: https://www.theatreinchicago.com/a-soldiers-play/5582/.