Crowns
Intiman Theatre
Through June 5.


One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest
Theater Schmeater
Through June 19.


Shadowlands
Taproot Theatre
Through June 19.

Crowns is pretty pleased with itself. As the Southern ladies of this gospel musical roll out various anecdotes about their mothers and their hats and their churchgoing escapades, the actors are a bit quick to laugh at how delightful their stories are. Fortunately, unbearable smugness is kept at bay by the presence of an outsider: a Brooklyn teenager named Yolanda (played with sublime sullenness by Felicia V. Loud) who's been sent to live with her South Carolinian grandmother after her brother is shot on the street. Yolanda looks sideways at these women and takes their rapturous self-mythologizing with a caustic grain of salt--which keeps the whole show in balance. Yolanda ultimately joins in the heartwarmingness, but this shift has been tempered enough by her sardonic presence that I didn't feel bludgeoned with PC-sanctioned benevolence. It helps that everyone in the cast--chuckling at their own jokes aside--has solid acting and singing chops; the music is lovely, as capable of quiet yearning as full-blast praise. But it's Loud who makes Crowns truly worth seeing. While her hiphop dancing leaves something to be desired, her simple presence is magnetic. It's appalling that I can't predict easy stardom for her, but the roles for African-American women are less than bountiful and too few directors will cast beyond race. (Intiman's Bart Sher is one who has; Loud would make a striking Emily in Intiman's impending production of Our Town....)

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest has its own smugness, but it's not the production's fault. Ken Kesey's novel brims with hippie machismo (according to this parable set in an insane asylum, the repressive forces of society squelch the joyful anarchic energy that flows from a man's testicles) and blithe misogyny (women are either stupid and sexually available or ball-busting and frigid). The novel gets away with this strident rebelliousness (or did in the 1960s and '70s) because of Kesey's vivid prose. Without that, Dale Wasserman's lousy theatrical adaptation struts impotently, screaming its themes in overstated scenes and bald speeches spouted by the flat, simplistic characters. Unsurprisingly, the 1975 movie (which owed nothing to Wasserman) hangs like a shroud over this production. As McMurphy, MJ Sieber blusters and bursts out with forced laughter, desperately trying to erase Jack Nicholson--it's almost painful to watch him (and everyone else) working so hard. Director Rob West, Sieber, and the rest of the cast have proven themselves capable of perceptive work in other shows, but they're smothered by this smarmy, obvious script. (However, L. B. Morse's set neatly sidesteps the limitations of Theater Schmeater's difficult space, cunningly implying many more rooms beyond the one we see. Anyone who's seen a lot of shows at Schmeater will admire his accomplishment.)

British author and theologian C. S. Lewis begins his character arc in William Nicholson's Shadowlands in a state of supreme self-confidence. With scholastic rigor, Lewis delves into pain, happiness, and God, coming to a beautiful metaphor that resolves human suffering and divine omnipotence. But Lewis' life is soon shaken by the arrival of Joy Gresham, an American poet with whom Lewis will fall in love, only to have their relationship torn apart by cancer. Shadowlands transcends the potential bathos of its story through a piercing intelligence (much of it expertly plucked by Nicholson from Lewis' writings) and what can only be described as precise emotion. The play articulates the love story--and the Love Story-esque plot--with a grace and restraint that enhances, rather than straitjackets, its emotional potential. Most importantly, Shadowlands is richly funny--much funnier than you'd think a play about someone dying of cancer could possibly be.

Taproot Theatre's production rises to every challenge this play presents. Jeff Berryman passionately captures the intellectual power, graciousness, humor, and repression of Lewis; it's a riveting performance. As Gresham, Nikki Visel Whitfield matches Berryman for smarts and emotional subtlety. They and the supporting cast, particularly Don Brady as Lewis' brother and Ken Holmes as an abrasive colleague, approach the play with no preciousness or undue respect, yet deeply troubling philosophical and moral questions are tightly woven into this small and very human story. For a play concerned with hearts, minds, and souls, the production is strikingly muscular--under Karen Lund's expert direction, the play picks you up and carries you effortlessly to its affecting conclusion. This is one of those rare productions where everything comes together to create something close to impeccable. Don't take it for granted.

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