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You look like life is possible.
Like life is a good thing.

---Freida Ashby

Craig Wallace and Dawn Ursula
C. Wallace and D. Ursula
(Photo: Stan Barouh)
Woolly Mammoth is offering a witty and interesting look into an upwardly mobile African American community during the early 1950's with S.M. Shephard-Massat's bittersweet Starving. Filled with quick one-liners and razor-tongued delivery, the play unfortunately accepts a sitcom level viewpoint that never plumbs the depths of what could be a truly remarkable and poignant story. There is a huge amount of wonderful material, but Ms. Shephard-Massat's play is unbalanced in its delivery, which trips up any real emotion we may feel for the characters and simply provides a glossy veneer of feel-good warmth.

Focusing on a newly created black neighborhood in Atlanta, whose residents have moved from more rural areas to seek their fortunes and new lives, Ms. Shephard-Massat's play examines the drama within one apartment building. Inhabiting the building's four units, there are: elderly married couple Freida and Felix Ashby, newlyweds Meeker and Bettie Chastaine, schoolteacher Rosetta Simpson, and 42-year-old retiree Archer Way. Popping in and out are taxi cab company owner Dubiard Coolbroth and his 20-something daughter, Dolsiss.

Within the story, a host of human conditions are touched upon -- adultery, drug addiction, rape, death, crime, labor unions, nosy neighbors and personal loneliness. That's a great deal of ground to cover in just over two hours. Unfortunately, Ms. Shephard-Massat doesn't choose one or two issues and take us into unchartered territory; she instead fills up much of her dialogue with witty banter that tends toward the uplifting sermon. This leaves the audience wondering where, if at all, the story is going.

In the second act there is a graphic rape that is incredibly difficult to watch. Within thirty seconds after the brutally violent encounter, Ms. Shephard-Massat completely changes course and offers up another round of witty jokes. It leaves the audience feeling emotionally dazed as to what the playwright is trying to accomplish. The theatre patrons have paid money to see a story and be taken on a journey, not to be left wondering if they should laugh at jokes while still trying to comprehend the battery they have just witnessed.

This is not to say that Starving is not worth seeing -- it certainly is on many levels. But as a story, there are too many missed opportunities which do disservice to the audience which is seeking some deeper connection to the play's characters. In its current form, Starving is a good play made much better by the excellent acting on stage. To be a great play, Starving needs to go deeper to find the pulsing heart within its story line.

Director Seret Scott has pulled together an excellent cast of actors, who keep the story moving even in those moments where one isn't sure where Starving might be heading. While set designer Daniel Ettinger's two-story 1950's apartment building looks slightly more like an early 1960's structure, it is ingenious in its voyeuristic window-side view of each of the apartments. (Though the moving up and down of the Chastaine's front window is a slightly heavy-handed way of letting us know that here is where the story's main plot is to be found.) The majority of Kate Tuner-Walker's costumes are vintage, although there are a few odd moments of modernism that creep in with the properties. Mark Anduss' composition and sound design fit the story nicely with strains of Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, and a jazz saxophone creating the ambient atmosphere.

The ensemble cast times the comedic moments just right and adds spark to the witty dialogue. Lizan Mitchell shines in the outrageous role of Freida Ashby. Tart-tongued and not "one of these new kind of fools," she is the resident who has the most insight into everyone within the building and on the block. Ms. Ashby can deliver a comedic line and then turn and pack another laugh with a quick second round retort. Unfortunately -- and not due to Ms. Mitchell's performance -- when Freida is onstage, there is no room for any of the other characters to develop. The role sucks all oxygen and life from the stage causing the production to wobble off-balance.

As stable and good-natured Felix Ashby, Doug Brown is the straight man to Ms. Mitchell's Freida. The two work well together and their chemistry shines when Freida becomes emotional about the children they have lost.

Jessica Frances Dukes as the naïve Betty moves from simple country girl to determined woman in a believable manner. While J Paul Nicholas as her husband Meeker provides an arrogance and spitefulness that makes one hope for his eventual comeupance.

Craig Wallace shines in the understated role of Archer Way, an everyday man trying to enjoy his life and create a bit of happiness for himself. While Dawn Ursula provides a sympathetic look at a highly educated woman, whose opportunities are constrained by our country's racial prejudice and thus discounts her abilities and intelligence simply because of her skin color. Each of the characters deserve more development and attention.

Michael Anthony Williams as Felix' cousin and local cab company owner Dubiard Coolbroth provides the other "character" in the play as a fun, slightly toned-down male version of Freida. And Bethany Butler shines as Dubiard's drug addicted daughter Dolsiss, a character who really should be in her own play. Staggering on and off stage, one isn't sure what to make of the character's presence in the overall story, though Ms. Butler's performance adds a note of empathy to this self-absorbed woman.

On a comic level, Starving works from the great wit and humor in Ms. Shephard-Massat's writing. Reason enough to see the play, since she is obviously a very talented wordsmith.

It's only when you start to look more deeply that you become disappointed in the end result of the piece, because you discover much of the dialogue is filler, which you can tune in and out of and not miss the plot development. Additionally, the dialogue sounds remarkably modern and TV-like for a play set in the early 1950's and its ending simply stops with no satisfactory resolution or direction, leaving one wondering what the point of the story was.

Of course, after all that dissecting of Starving, the performance I saw received a standing ovation. The acting is excellent and the humor in the script is very funny, so I highly recommend that you check it out yourself and make your own decision about its worthiness.

by S.M. Shephard-Massat
Directed by Seret Scott
with Lizan Mitchell, Dawn Ursula, Craig Wallace, Doug Brown, Jessica Frances Dukes, Bethany Butler, Michael Anthony Williams, J Paul Nicholas
Set Design: Daniel Ettinger
Lighting Design: Dan Covey
Sound Design/Composer: Mark Anduss
Costume Design: Kate Turner-Walker
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with 1 intermission
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, 641 D Street NW
Telephone: 202-393-3939
WED - SAT @8, SUN @2 & 7; $30-$48
Opening 11/14/05, closing 12/18/05
Reviewed by Rich See based on 11/20/05 performance
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