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Posted Jul 26, 2012, 8:13 am
“Hope,” the latest in Beowulf Alley Theatre Company’s summer series, is ostensibly about a man considering becoming his party’s nominee for Congress. Locked in a hotel room, he reviews his life not to see if he is good enough for national leadership, but to assure the party and himself that he’s not irredeemably bad.
Although there are plenty of jabs at the current state of politics by playwright Jem Street, the real story is about love.
Joe Chandler, played by Michael Gifford, has made more than a few mistakes in his life. He is considered a successful businessman after making millions in finance, despite multiple failures before that fortuitous intersection of opportunity, greed and lax regulation. His generous donations to his alma mater make him popular, though he himself was an indifferent student. His happy marriage was nearly destroyed by his earlier infidelity.
Of course, we know that none of that matters in today’s world of spin politics.
A narrative in retrograde
When party fixer Glen Hubbard (Steve McKee) visits to offer the congressional seat, Joe must consider all of his skeletons that could be revealed in the harsh lights of the 24-hour news cycle. “It’s a dirty game,” Hubbard explains.
In a series of flashbacks, the ghosts come forth, painting the details of Joe’s life. There’s his racist father, played by Jim Ambrosek. Joe’s college girlfriend, Julia (Chazale Rodriquez), is a Black student whose choice as a partner is based at least in part on Joe’s reaction to his family’s legacy of bigotry. There’s Sara (Jessica Morgan), his married mistress with whom he has an extended affair. Marianne (Denise Blum), is Joe’s long suffering wife, who put him through graduate school, supported him during business fiascos and continues to support him, raising their two children. Each is relevant to the question of Joe’s fitness for public office. More importantly, each also demonstrates Joe’s longing to be loved, his difficulties in giving love himself.
And back in the here and now, there’s Katie (Lily Delamere), Hubbard’s political operative sent to tutor and shape Joe the candidate in his hotel room. Katie is a hot long-legged blonde vixen who is also brainy, as in Harvard Law School smart. There’s chemistry because each recognizes and appreciates the predatory instincts of the other.
In the second half of the play, the ghosts again come forth for resolutions and revelations. In a final twist, Joe’s journey through the past becomes a hero’s quest as he finally begins to transcend his failures. Joe’s life may have been sordid and messy, but ultimately, he achieves redemption from his sins.
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Director Michael Fenlason keeps the pace as fast as can be allowed in a narrative that constantly moves back and forth in time. He uses side entrances and lighting to suggest Joe’s dream states and introduce the skeletons rattling around inside his mind. The technique takes some getting used to, though any fault lies in the script with its repeated pull backwards to propel the narrative and provide backstory.
Although Gifford is the main character, McKee threatens to steal the show with his glib portrayal of a true political animal. His smooth-talking amorality contrasts nicely with Joe’s sense of failed responsibility and shame. If Joe imagines himself unworthy, where does that leave this hard-drinking, go-for-the-throat weasel who controls the process?
Gifford gives a smooth performance as Joe, whose peripatetic busyness is a way to avoid introspection. Delameer on the other hand, as Joe’s mirror, had more bluster than might be expected of someone supposedly so self-assured and accomplished.
Although the rest of the cast did solid jobs in their respective roles, Ambrosek, in particular gave a moving portrayal. Seen recently in Beowulf Alley’s “Sins of the Mother,” he successfully inhabited a very different and complex character here: a bad person who is also the only one who offers Joe unconditional love, even if that requires some violence to get his point across.
“Hope” is part of Beowulf’s Next Theatre (formerly Late Night Theatre), which is “dedicated to new plays, new storytelling and relevant ideas,” In keeping with that mission, their most recent production was Eugene O’Neill’s long lost “Exorcism.” “Hope” is also an interesting experiment, though with more contemporary relevance than O’Neill’s historical artifact.
While not perfect, “Hope” is worth the effort required to get to the theatre’s downtown location during the construction and experience it for oneself during its brief run.