Belles, A Play in two acts or 45 phone calls by Mark Dunn. Directed by Nancy Wilder.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Jackie DeGiorgis as Aneece; photo: Dan Region
"I admit it. My standards are too low."
Comedy can be tragic when very little is amusing. Similarly, drama can be silly when everything is trivial. "Belles," a play by Mark Dunn, which opens the 35th season of the Ghent Playhouse is neither trivial nor tragic even though it is barely amusing and only a minor drama. It is, one might say, a mistake that this company has made, one of the few in my memory after sixteen seasons of reviewing them, and that can be forgiven when you weigh the prior years and the bulk of their community opportunity. This company has nurtured actors, Stephanie Tanaka comes to mind, who bring little experience but a true conviction that acting is to be pursued. It has folded into its season a British Holiday Pantomime tradition, completely foreign to this region, and made it a hard-ticket item. It has brought national figures, Serpico comes to mind, into their seasons past and showcased them ensemble-style and made audiences nearly beg for more such appearances. This company has even taken technical theatricians under its wing and turned them back into the public eye as remarkable performers.
This opener for their new season provides at least four company debuts, including the director, and does what good community theater should do - bringing new blood onto the local stage and developing new audiences for the product they produce. It is just that this vehicle is inferior, the performances not up to snuff, and the direction sloppy and muddled. That is not a great result from a terrific intention.
"Belles" tells a brief story - only four consecutive days are portrayed - about the six Walker sisters who live in six states, scattered from their Tennessee roots to Philadelphia, Atlanta, Austin, and towns in Mississippi and Washington State. Their only means of communication with one another is the telephone and in "two act or 45 phone calls" (I actually counted fifty-one, but maybe I shouldn’t have included the answering machine and responses as actual calls) the Walker girls manage to alter their lives just a tiny bit. One loses a husband; one loses her self-delusions; one takes a step into relationships; one spews her anger into the ethos; one experiences a sexual revitalization; one manages to move her empathy onto a road called apathy.
The greatest alterations are delivered by a Ghent regular, Cathy Lee-Visscher playing Roseanne and a newcomer, Jackie DeGiorgis as Aneece. The most minor changes in their lives are experienced by actresses Leanne Wilensky as Paige and Denise Rubio as Dust. Eileen Johnson’s Audrey and Sally Dodge’s Peggy are caught in the playwright’s lustreless limbo.
The biggest problem seems to be the inept handling of a difficult set, designed by Tom Detwiler, by director Nancy Wilder who has helmed another production of this play in the dim past - fifteen years ago. There are lengthy stage waits while actresses clamber on and/or off the set in silence. There are lengthy stage waits while actresses in ghost-light perform dumb dumb-show that merely reinforces the difficulty of maneuvering in the space. There are long periods when music plays and actors stand still waiting for the much-needed fade-out while lights are coming up so they can begin a scene. The disconcerting emotional dissonance serves only to disillusion the audience, turning their emotional attention into Spam (the meat product, not internet junk) and their appreciation of all that is good here into simple rejection of the play.
Lee-Visscher’s role is not dissimilar to others she has taken on at this and other regional community theaters. She handles Roseanne’s disappointments beautifully and her destruction of ketchup is classic. As a distracted mother, always in a "fishbowl" of critical attention, she creates a sympathetic character. She is a woman scorned and betrayed. She is a needy soul who cannot pour out her heart without finding herself in a puddle. Roseanne makes a miraculous recovery and Lee-Visscher knows just how to make us believe it possible. More and more, the actress is better and better in every part she plays. Roseanne is the one character whose life seems real from 8:10 to 10:20.
She is almost matched by DeGiorgis. Aneece is single, sharp, hard-edged, an alcoholic like her reprehensible father. She is self-tortured due to a childhood in which torture was love and love was withheld. Her need for a mother to hold her while being upbraided becomes so important that a second act monologue comes close to approaching pathos. DeGiorgis makes her second act appearances so much better than they might have been, based on her heavy-drawling, Memphis-impressed first act moments. She finishes the play with a personally triumphant scene that keeps the play alive, more alive than it has been for nearly two hours.
Leanne Wilensky is young and has a long way to go before she can tackle a complex role like Paige successfully. At this point, unlike DeGiorgis and Lee-Visscher, we can see her acting. The next steps take careful work and excellent guidance.
Denise Rubio plays Dust, or whatever her name is, with gusto and enthusiasm yet we never really get close to the woman she is or the child she once was. The lines are there, but the heart and soul of the woman is lost in movement, outfits, and a sexual sensibility that is both funny and unreal at the same time. Her character is lost in characterization, easy answers for a young actress.
Youth, in fact, is the one element that defeats this production. The age range of these six sisters is so great that the off-stage, much referred to, Mother would have to be nearly 100 for any reality to set in here. One problem with community theater has always been the availability of actors who are right for the roles. In this case we seem to cover a spectrum of twenty to sixty (or more). For any woman to have conceived and raised these girls together in one house is visually impossible.
Sally Dodge is a decent actress burdened with a role that seems, in her hands, more hired nurse, a live-in, for a shut-in around her own age. Mama must have started breeding when she was eleven. Dodge, who is placed downstage center, is presented as the central character through this physical placement. In reality it is Aneece whose emotional journey covers the most ground, but it is Peggy, or Dodge, whose time on stage is central to all the activity. Dodge does what she can under the spotty guidance of her director, but she cannot save the play, not with her long stage entrances and exits. They preclude the buttoning of a scene; come to think of it the director hasn’t really managed a button with direction or lights or sound for any moment in the play.
Similarly Johnson’s Audrey is somewhere out in left field. She is really the only sister who seems to have spent her formative years as trailer-park trash. Her obsession with bar performances as a ventriloquist while waiting dutifully at home for her backwoods hunter husband is so out-of-keeping with the rest of her siblings that she is almost an intrusion, something out of another play. This is the playwright’s doing, and not Johnson’s, but she is stuck with it. She has most of the humorous lines and bits and her physical presence is splendiferous. She is just too "out there" to provide a proper family semblance to this ensemble.
Too much to achieve too little is the final call here. Talent wasted on third-rate materials does not make for enjoyable theater. I look forward to the Pantomime and whatever follows that. I think you should do the same. Things will get better at the Ghent Playhouse, and soon. I’m sure of it.
Belles plays through October 25 at the Ghent Playhouse on Route 66, just west of Chatham, NY. For schedules and tickets call the box office at 518-392-6264.