Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
Directed by Rene Moreno
Stage Manager - Kasson Marroquin
Assistant Stage Manager - Zoelyn Copeland
Scenic Design - Rodney Dobbs
Assistant Scenic Design - Kaori Imai
Lighting Design - Kenneth Farnsworth
Sound Design - Mason York
Costume Design - Ryan Matthieu Smith
Props Design - Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Language Consultant - Sarah d'Angelo
Niles Harris - James Crawford
Vita Harris - Allison Pistorius
Marion Clay - Sue Loncar
Salvatore Zappala - Jake Buchanan
Father William Doherty - H. Francis Fuselier
Don Tabaha - Ivan Jasso
PHOTOS by GEORGE WADA
Reviewed Performance 4/19/2013
Reviewed by Charlie Bowles, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
Just a few clicks outside of Santa Fe, not far from Gallup on the old Route 66, there's a small church. It's a dry dusty church with no town to speak of which serves the local Indian tribe. This is the kind of place you reach only by accident, but people who find their way are usually searching for answers they didn't even know they needed.
Niles and Vita Harris are traveling Route 57 when an emergency at the nearby nuclear uranium mine closes the roads, apparently a frequent occurrence. They wait out the heat in this church where they are soon joined by Marion Clay and Salvatore Zappala, who get delayed leaving town, and Father William Doherty and his young helper, Don Tabaha. It seems Don is also running away. Of course, when people who are running from something get trapped together, their stories become larger than life.
Angels Fall, by the prolific author Lanford Wilson, is the story of these six people and how they struggle to explain their choices and lifestyles to each other, and to themselves. You can see this story now at the church of Contemporary Theatre of Dallas.
As I entered the old building restored by CTD, I was immediately struck by the cathedral atmosphere and thought I was actually entering a church. I hadn't been to this theater before so I asked someone if it was the right place. The lobby, walls and auditorium were decorated with the accoutrements of a Catholic church, crosses and candles, a display of old bibles of different styles and periods, signs on the wall and even donation receptacles. And since the auditorium is open to the lobby, I could see the stage decorated as both the sanctuary of a church, with vestibule and wooden benches, and an exterior with stucco walls and a bell tower. If it hadn't been for the bar at the back of the auditorium and cafe tables with cushion chairs, parishioners would be comfortable taking communion there.
This scenic description shows the power of a palpable atmosphere and a complete setting in preparing an audience emotionally for a story they'll see, an atmosphere that starts at the front door. Though this decoration was not credited, I understand Artistic Director Sue Loncar had a lot to do with it and I suspect the whole production team worked together to make the space feel realistic.
The stage setting was designed by Rodney Dobbs and Kaori Imai to be an extension of the theater decorations, providing several doorways and windows, as well as the furniture of a church. Overall lighting of the theater lobby and auditorium was a bit dark as old churches sometimes are. Stage lighting was designed by Kenneth Farnsworth to show window lighting that indicated the passing of a long hot afternoon into evening. To complete the design picture, Mason York filled the air with music from the early 80's. In fact, the pre-show and intermission sounded like a radio scanning the dials playing different local radio stations around New Mexico with a cross-section of musical genres. Costumes were designed by Ryan Matthieu Smith and nothing seemed grossly out of place. Actors had plenty of material to remove in the heat and various accessories that showed their station in life. The tennis player wore tight white tennis shorts and shirt. The college professor's wife wore a long sheer print summer dress and the Father wore the simple priestly black pants and shirt seen on more casual occasions.
Three couples had stories to tell and it was easy to lean forward and relish in how each story unfolded. Niles Harris is the art professor in his later years, married to a young pretty wife, Vita. James Crawford and Allison Pistorius played this couple. He is cynical about the state of education in America, but erudite and intellectual as he juggles his emotions between being disillusioned about his depression and nervous about a possible nuclear meltdown. She keeps a continuing positive counter to keep him stable, while worrying about his worsening condition. While we could imagine the older man and younger wife as something less pure, Crawford and Pistorius showed us a loving couple with the normal back and forth that comes with years together. It's clear this marriage has some strain, yet Crawford and Pistorius played the couple with tender affections while quietly realizing the causes of their conflict is really below the surface.
Marion Clay is the older widow of a famous artist, carrying on with her young tennis star wannabe, Salvatore Zappala. Sue Loncar gave Marion a strong sense of personal power and it was clear she wore the pants in the family, even though they were tight and shiny. But Loncar also showed a sense of longing, a quiet mourning, and a deep need to have this young man love her. Jake Buchanan portrayed Zappy as a self-confident lover, disillusioned by his lack of success on the tennis circuit and determined to change his luck but also wanting to be with Marion. Buchanan physically played Zappy's eccentricities, such as a flaming case of hypochondria and youthful immaturity. His character is opposite to Marion's but in his performance there was nothing sleazy about it. It was a real relationship. Both Buchanan and Loncar played out the subtle tension between an older woman and younger man without stereotype.
Don Tabaha is a young Native American who has grown up in the church, apparently a ward of the priest. Ivan Jasso dressed the part, stood tall, and showed a stoic but proud air of a young man who wants to impact his world, while his quick emotions and impetuous attempts to run away showed a struggle between using his new status as a doctor to minister to the reservation and his opportunity to leave the reservation for the big city. Jasso accentuated this internal conflict throughout the play with an ambivalence in how he performed each action and in how he related to his mentor.
Tabaha's mentor and foster father, Father William Doherty, wants desperately for him to stay to help his people who are suffering because of the nuclear facilities that surround them. H. Francis Fuselier played Father Doherty with a cross between the wise priestly advisor and a proud but hurting father of a son who's not making the best choice. The Father becomes a reluctant minister to both couples who are searching for their own answers while also struggling with his own feelings, like a real father and son conflict. Fuselier allowed Father Doherty to be both a pillar of wisdom and the humorous light within the play, self-effacing and gently nudging the two couples toward their own enlightenment. The script allowed him many comic moments and Fuselier played them with precision and not a hint of pretense. He let the text and the moments create the laughter.
The conflicts of these characters did not come as much from the words in the script as by how they each played the words and their own motivations. All actors had a deep sense of the basic storyline, which was about people being trapped by the nuclear accident, but that they were able to expand the simple story to show their own struggles and personal redemptions and give the whole story a larger meaning. These actors created characters which were as different as night and day from each other, yet they visibly showed how they all were the same. It was an exceptional acting job across the board.
It might be redundant to say that Rene Moreno directed Angels Fall with a light, but strong, touch. He has a history of creating award-winning casts who portray characters against strong scripts and getting the most from them. His vision, clearly shared by Sue Loncar, of putting the audience into the church, was effective in strengthening the story's message. Even more, Moreno created a unified ensemble of cast and production crew that made every detail of this play a memorable experience.
Artistic Director Sue Loncar writes in her program notes, "It is our intent to examine these relationships together. Most of all to find the common denominator in us all - the need to be validated and understood." I felt a sense of this story the moment I walked into the building and was enlightened and filled with the story as I walked out. Angels Fall is truly an outstanding show worth experiencing.
Contemporary Theatre of Dallas
5601 Sears Street
Dallas, TX 75206
Plays through May 12th
Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 pm, Sunday at 2:00 pm
Main floor seating is $32.00, $27.00 for seniors. Balcony seating is $27.00, $22.00 for seniors. Online orders have a $1.00 convenience fee added.
For information and tickets, go to www.contemporarytheatreofdallas.com or call 214-828-0094