A LOVE OFFERINGby Jonathan Norton
Kitchen Dog Theater
Whitney LaTrice Coulter – T’wana
Brandy McClendon Kae -- Josie
Max Hartman – Stewart
Rhonda Boutte – Miss Georgia
Chris Messersmith – Mr. Turner
Director – Tina Parker
Stage Manager – Sarah Duc
Set Design – Clare Floyd DeVries
Lighting Design – Lisa Miller
Sound design - Claire Carson
Costume Designer – Melissa Panzarello
Props Design – Cyndy Ernst Godinez
Tech Director -- Lori Honeycutt
Assistant Stage Manager – Riley Arnold
Carpenter – Kayla Anderson
Assistant Costume Designer – Amy Poe
Reviewed Performance: 10/3/2019
Reviewed by Stacey Upton, Associate Critic for John Garcia's THE COLUMN
“a love offering” takes place in an assisted living facility, and from the moment one walks into the theatre, you believe you are in that space. The set design by Clare Floyd DeVries is exceptional in both its utility and evocation of nursing home living. The prop design by Cyndy Ernst Godinez was the perfect complement, hitting all the right notes, from a sanitizing gel dispenser on the wall to the adult diapers in a drawer to large boxes of supplies in a utility closet used for a section of the play.
Director Tina Parker’s choice to have bedridden Mr. Turner in his hospital bed, laying in a fugue state as the audience enters was arresting. This is a play that is meant to be uncomfortable and disruptive, and that mandate was filled from the beginning. In some ways this is a memory play, and the continual presence throughout the 90-minute no-intermission show of the mostly silent Mr. Foster, father to the two grown children who have divergent ideas about his care needs reminds one of the omnipresent portrait of the Father hanging on the wall in Tennessee Williams’ “The Glass Menagerie.” It is because of Father that the grown children and the caregivers at the facility are enmeshed, not only because of his illness, as he is profoundly in the grip of Alzheimer’s disease, but also because of his past actions when he was still cogent.
There is a lot to digest in this play, and in many ways it is to the playwrights’ credit that he chose not to hone on a particular problem, but instead thrust his audience into a morass of difficult issues. We live in complicated times, and this play doesn’t back away from exploring the multitude of concerns surrounding those of us who are now in the position of caring for the parents who once (successfully or not) cared for us. Racism, elder abuse, and the tribulations of being a caregiver are chief among the topics explored in this piece, but incarceration, religion, foster care, single motherhood, sibling rivalry, guilt, shame, regret and the pain of living with a parent with Alzheimer’s are also given their fare shake.
The cast worked very hard to convey the wide topic range, and the director did a good job moving her cast around the space. The pacing of this 90-minute piece rarely lagged, and there were several moments when the audience gasped at a casually racist remark, such as “black people walk slow” or the more pointed use of the N-word, or when the action turns violent on stage. This is engrossing theatre, and my companion and I discussed it at length as we travelled home, which is always the hallmark of thought-provoking theatre that has been well-executed.
Of the five actors onstage, Whitney LaTrice Coulter was a standout. Her nuanced performance of a single mother trying as best she can to rise above her difficulties while dealing with irascible patients who are just as likely to bite her as cooperate was moving. Her faith in Jesus, her pain as she navigates a moral dilemma and tries to figure out where her loyalties lie, and her occasional moments of joy were all beautifully portrayed. Her character as written is by far the most developed of the piece, and her dialogue rings beautifully true. We truly care about T’wana in much of the play, even when she shows her darker side.
Rhonda Boutte as 67-year-old caregiver had some fantastic moments, but her character seemed to move mercurially from outraged to accepting and understanding without the requisite steps in between to make the switches make sense. Boutte had several wonderful moments in this play as she used her expressive face and eyes to full effect, either smiling over-broadly at the white folks or piercing T’wana with a glare. It was in her tender “mama” moments with T’wana that Boutte showed what she is truly capable of as a performer, and they were a delight.
Max Hartman as Stewart also had many effective moments, but his need to find out who stole an item from his father’s room seemed too trivial for his actions. The play never really gets to what is driving him, so we are left to wonder whether he actually hates his father, or is just a vapid soul who fills his days with windy prayer that ultimately reveals he has no faith at all. This blurred reality may be intentional on the part of the writer, but it didn’t feel as if it filled the needs of the play as well as a more clearly drawn portrait of a son no longer able to love his father could have done.
Brandy McClendon Kae as high-strung “I do everything” sister Josie has the most thankless role. It is to the actresses’ credit that we had any sympathy for her overwrought character at all. Josie is written as a one-note racist emotional mess wracked by guilt and rarely comes off that strident tone. This is a shame, as it is in this character that the writer has placed the onus of conveying the concrete fear that leaving our aging loved ones in a facility engenders. Those feelings placed in an such an unlikeable character prevents us from truly engaging with that fear, creating an unfortunate imbalance in this high-striving play. Kae’s strength as an actress showed in her quiet moments alone with her father, or in her reactions to her brother spouting off one more time. It was at those points where she resonated with the audience, and rooted us back into solid reality.
Finally as the always present but nearly speechless and motionless Mr. Foster, Chris Messersmith has filled his performance from beginning to end with subtle moments. It is piece of difficult character work that was excellent and engaging from beginning to end. In lazier hands this would have been a catatonic role but Messersmith manages to convey that some of the proceedings are sinking into his befuddled mind, and that he is trying like hell to chime in. Beautiful work.
Directing new works is always a creative challenge, especially ones that are meant to be confrontational. Tina Parker did many lovely things with this piece, and there were exceptional, memorable moments that were pitch perfect. Parker’s trust in her actor’s abilities is well-placed, and she has done a good job allowing the play to be as ugly as it needs to be to get it’s points across. While this is not a comfortable journey, to his credit playwright Norton has bravely highlighted many arenas where our society needs to improve in this thought-provoking piece. In Parker’s hands, the play ends on a note of caring forgiveness, a much-needed message at the end of this jarring journey. Its placement makes one think about one’s own caregivers -- that perhaps we owe them more grace than we have shown in the past. If this is the only message one takes from this play, it is a well-spent evening at the theatre.
Trinity River Arts Center, 2600 N. Stemmons Fwy, Ste. 180, Dallas, TX 75207
Box Office: 214.953.1055, www.kitchendogtheater.org