RUTHby Vicki Caroline Cheatwood
Kitchen Dog Theater
Directed by Tim Johnson
Stage Manager - Stephanie Jayko
Scenic Designer - Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Designer - Aaron Johansen
Costume Designer - Samantha J. Miller
Original Music/Sound Designer - Cheyenne Schweitzer
Props Designer - Jen Gilson-Gilliam
Liza Marie Gonzalez - Ruth
Gail Cronauer - Naomi
Andrews W. Cope - Malachai/Strick
Barry Nash - Eli/Mr. Nix
Clay Wheeler - Killian/Dale David
Lisa Hassler - Ora/Jayelle
Clay Yocum - Rev. John/Boaz
Cheyenne Schweitzer - Musician
Reviewed Performance: 5/25/2012
Reviewed by David Hanna, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
The Book of Ruth is one of the shortest in the Old Testament, and placed between the Book of Judges and 1 Samuel. At first glance, Ruth is a simple story of family, kindness, and faith during crisis. Yet Ruth is one of the keystones to the entire Bible, as Ruth and Boaz are revealed as the grandparents of King David. This simple yet profoundly important story is the inspiration for Vicki Caroline Cheatwood's new play, Ruth, which captures the soul and heart of the biblical story in its intimate premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater.
Cheatwood's script follows the plot of the original but pushes the story forward into modern history. The first act takes place in California in 1939 and the second act is set in Oklahoma City in 2007. In the Book of Ruth, Elimelech and Naomi are travelers from Judah seeking refuge from a famine, and settle in Moab. The two sons of Eli and Naomi marry Moabite women, outside of their tribe. This aspect drives the play's conflict as Cheatwood re-imagines Eli and Naomi as refugees of the Oklahoma Dust Bowl and Ruth as a woman of mixed Hispanic descent. This clever convention makes the stakes and tension of an ancient story tangible and present for a contemporary audience.
The script itself holds fast to the soul and message of the original story with balance and grace. The first act echoes the melancholy expressionism of Synge's Riders to the Sea, while the second act sits comfortably in contemporary realism. Cheatwood shifts her linguistic style as needed to engage the story. Her writing serves the theme and plot more than any individual voice, giving Ruth the same weight and purpose as the biblical tale. Vicki Caroline Cheatwood is audacious and unafraid in her writing but only in order to support the strong story she wants to tell.
The script is a bit uneven, particularly in the first act. There are several moments of overlapping dialogue in the first few scenes that are unfortunately more confusing than emotionally charged. As well, there are moments in the first few scenes where comedic lines will be casually dropped into tense moments of conflict. It's nice to have the comedic relief in the midst of a tragic first act but Cheatwood interrupts so often that the audience is sometimes left wanting. By the second act however, Cheatwood builds momentum and delivers the profound simplicity found in the original text.
Director Tim Johnson captures the world of Ruth in a minimal, understated style. Johnson gets out of the way of the script and plot, opting instead to focus on the tone of the play through the actors. He doesn't try to assign significance to characters or moments, letting them play out for the audience to decipher. Just as Cheatwood does with the script, Johnson is balanced and graceful in crafting beautiful images and moments and allowing the actors to connect them.
This set up the biggest issue with the performance on Friday night - the tempo. From the very beginning, the show feels rushed as actors blow past moments of raw emotion. The show is often at its best when the actors take a moment to let the audience watch their reaction and emotion rather than flying through the plot. Despite being plot-heavy, there are countless moments in Ruth that need to breathe but are never given the opportunity.
Liza Marie Gonzalez and Gail Cronauer are perfectly balanced as Ruth and Naomi. Gonzalez has poise and presence, grounded in her character's humility. She's strong when she needs to be strong and delicate when she needs to be delicate. She's the epitome of believability, fitting the role like a glove. Cronauer, however, is always shifting, having to transition from emotion to emotion in a split second. Naomi could be completely off the rails, but Cronauer knows just how far to go before reining her performance in. The two are incredibly complementary and fill in the gaps in the others' character.
Andrews W. Cope is pure charm as Malachai, completely enamored with Ruth. He draws the audience in nearer and nearer until his secret is revealed near the end of the first act. As Strick, he's still compelling but doesn't have as much of a role. He's at ease and natural on the stage, completely believable in both his roles.
Clay Yocum makes his mark in the second act as Boaz. He portrays Boaz as an idealist and Christian who can't stand for the mistreatment of men, no matter what the law states. Boaz a somewhat simple character, yet Yocum is believable in the role and grounds it in truth. His "aw-shucks" demeanor is perfectly sympathetic, establishing him as the moral voice of the play.
Lisa Hassler grabs attention in her contrasting roles as Ora and Jayelle. In the first act, Hassler is a stuttering nervous wreck who has never heard a kind word in her life from Ruth. Hassler then transforms into Jayelle, a typically loud, Southern Christian woman. Both are strong, archetypal roles but Hassler infuses them with real pathos and conflict. She forces the audience to consider her character's point of view regardless of whether they agree or not. Despite her limited stage time, Hassler makes a strong impression.
Clay Wheeler infuses the show with nice bursts of comedy in both his roles. As Killian, he drifts in and out of the show to break the tension between Eli and Naomi. He's even funnier though, as Dale David, Naomi's nephew, who has no filter and an obsession with Wheel of Fortune. His characters are more functional than anything else but Wheeler performs that function well.
Barry Nash plays Eli with resignation and weariness. He's suffered through hard times and the Dust Bowl, and has dealt with a life of setbacks and tragedy. He's the cynical voice of the show but he's also head over heels for Naomi. Nash lets Eli, along with his other minor role as Mr. Nix, blend into the background without forcing their presence.
Scenic Designer Clare Floyd DeVries and Lighting Designer Aaron Johansen work together to create staging that works both visually and tonally. DeVries' set is built around the image of wooden pallets which transition easily from a modest California farm home to a loading dock to a homeless shelter to a garden house on a large estate, with little to no set changes. There are two levels that allow for multiple locations and large-scale composition for director Tim Johnson. Johansen uses this canvas to paint beautiful colors of emotion, from moonlight in a newlywed's bedroom to shining stars across the sky. Johansen never uses blackouts, choosing instead to subtly draw the audience's eye to what they need to see. Both designers serve the show completely with refreshing subtlety and restraint.
Samantha J. Miller captures the different periods well in her costume design and manages to capture a sense of each character in the colors of the costumes. Jen Gilson-Gilliam adds to the sense of time and space with a detailed, attentive props design. Their work helps build the sense of realism onstage, giving the audience visual cues to keep up with the plot.
Cheyenne Schweitzer's sound design is perhaps the most integral to the show, as it involves him as a performer in the production. Schweitzer is sitting on the stage before the show begins, playing guitar by himself. He plays in the vein of Woody Guthrie with a sly, detached style that allows his music to comment without being an overbearing presence. He's great at fitting different styles to fit the moment. At one point, he plays the Woody Guthrie version of "This Land is Your Land" in a minor-chord arrangement, adding some of the biting commentary of Guthrie's other verses to fit the play's stance on immigration issues. In another, he covers contemporary folk artist Jolie Holland's "Old Fashioned Morphine" after a chain of tragedies and pain. It's an interesting choice and Schweitzer, like his fellow designers, pulls it off without being a distraction.
That's the refreshing thing about Ruth: it's not overbearing or difficult. It's optimistic and satisfying, and ties up all loose ends. Often theater can get shrouded in bleak, hopeless reality, but Ruth affirms that there are still glimmers of hope in a broken world. The soul of the biblical story is ever-present in Vicki Caroline Cheatwood's script and Kitchen Dog's production, and it shows in the performers' energy onstage. Near the end of the play, Ruth is unable to understand how she can deserve such blessing and Naomi answers perfectly, "We don't." That reality is gratifying and invigorating to see onstage. Ruth isn't without faults, but its unique blend of heart and message are worth your time.
Kitchen Dog Theater
McKinney Avenue Contemporary, 3120 McKinney Avenue, Dallas, TX 75204
Plays through June 23rd
Thursday-Saturday at 8:00 pm
Wednesday, June 6th and 20th at 8:00 pm
Sunday, June 3rd and 17th at 2:00 pm
Please note: the performance on Saturday, June 2 will start at 8:30pm "Talk-backs" follow all Sunday performances.
Ticket are $15 - $25 regular and $10 - $20 for MAC, STAGE, KERA, DART, ARTSCARD, TCG members, students and senior citizens 65+(all with proper ID.