Didactic theater entertains only if the dramatics are as strong as the indoctrination. Otherwise, the audience will feel the author is shoving ideas down their throats - as they probably did when a recording of a Buddhist teacher's seminar droned on during the intermissions of Three Roads Home, a showcase not only of Steven Thornburg's playwriting, but also of his New Agey philosophies.
Three Roads Home comprises three one-act plays that are linked by references to characters and by Thornburg's ethical imperative. The first play takes place in 1911, the second in 1999, the third in 2999. All deal with judgment, punishment, and redemption, but their exploration of these concepts was unenlightening because the catharses were weakly rendered and some of the acting was subpar.
The first piece, The Difference of Snake and Dove, is set in a small town where a young black man has been accused of killing a police officer. In the local schoolhouse, only four children are in attendance, since the other children and their bigoted parents have gone to the town square to see that the suspect is punished. The community's intolerance has special resonance for two of the schoolteachers (Kathleen O'Regan and Teresa Fischer), themselves members of a hated minority. This is the only play in the trio that didn't get tedious, but the central role was misplayed by O'Regan. Her performance was too mannered, with her fidgeting and sometimes-wavering Irish accent overrunning the emotions underlying her behavior. The four adult actors (Elias Stimac, Ingrid Swen, Jenny Greeman, John Nizzari) who played her young students-as well as their parents-handled both assignments well.
Act II is From Eagle's Nest, in which a prisoner (Tommy Barz) on death row in Oklahoma seeks spiritual counsel from a Native American shaman (Henry Segovia). The play brings up a host of sensitive issues it doesn't address satisfactorily, such as the shaman's TV celebrityhood, the possibility of the convicted man's innocence, and Christian vs. Native American spirituality. Barz couldn't seem to make up his mind whether to portray the inmate as a scared teenager or a dim-witted adult. He muttered, had an accent that was anything but Oklahoman, and stuck to one tone throughout what was supposed to be a dramatic confrontation. Segovia spoke in the stereotypical Indian "accent" so stiffly, one expected him to say "How!"
The program concluded with Naturally, a comedy involving a debate in Heaven about whether to return to Earth as an all-new person. The play has a few decent jokes about spirituality and reincarnation, but two-thirds of the cast (Wayde Cooper and Julie Finch) were weak to middling. The third, Steven Hart, hammed it up but at least did something with his role.
Three Roads Home had good costumes, including period skirts and a winged angel get-up. Other production elements were poorly done, such as the use of a mannequin to represent the lynched black man, a silly and distracting "spirit dancer," and the absence of music when the characters danced at the end of Naturally. There were also anachronisms in the script: the use of the word "diversity" (to mean multiculturalism) in 1911, a schoolteacher in that era wearing bright red nail polish, and execution by firing squad and hanging in 1999.
(Sets, Tommy Barz; costumes, Teresa Fischer; lighting, Louis Lopardi; sound, Louis Lopardi and Kathleen O'Regan.)
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Copyright 2000 Adrienne Onofri