Entertainment » Theatre

House Arrest

by Christopher Verleger
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Sep 19, 2017
Michlle L. Walker and Andrew Conley
Michlle L. Walker and Andrew Conley  

Epic Theatre Company kicks off its sixth season with a powerful, haunting production of "House Arrest," Anna Deavere Smith's play composed from hundreds of interviews with both well-known personalities and everyday Americans about the presidency and its correlation between the nation's political climate and the moral fortitude of its citizens.

Subtitled "A Search for American Character In and Around the White House, Past and Present," "House Arrest" refers to the occupant of the Oval Office and how the scrutiny of his words and actions by the public and the press seemingly resemble that of a criminal in captivity.

While there is talk of Lincoln, Roosevelt, Nixon, Carter and Bush, Deavere Smith first wrote and performed this work in the late nineties, so it's no surprise that Bill Clinton is her most pervasive subject, followed by Thomas Jefferson. It's also no coincidence that the names of their respective mistresses, Monica Lewinsky and Sally Hemmings, are also mentioned.

Under the precise, succinct direction of Jonathan Pitts-Wiley, seventeen actors portray 36 characters, announced by name and affiliation before stepping forward to address the audience. Each shares an anecdote, an argument, an eyewitness account or expertise on subjects as broad and varied as journalism, politics, slavery, abortion and child abuse. Although some of the segments stray from the encompassing theme, the spoken words are individually and collectively fraught with depth and proficiency.

In addition to the presidents, most of the waxing philosophical speakers are recognizable figures -- Anita Hill, George Stephanopoulos, Gloria Steinem and Walt Whitman -- yet some of the messages from the lesser known contributors are equally significant or persuasive. The production effectively and pointedly reminds the audience that just because someone rubs elbows with our nation's capital doesn't make his or her experience any more relevant than the average American's.

The acting ensemble, overall, is solid and impressive, with select performances worthy of special mention, including Greg Geer's hearty, impeccable portrayal of legendary broadcaster Studs Terkel, and an especially animated Kelly Robertson as enraged evangelical minister, Flip Benham.

A stoic Ian Hudgins shines as the hard-drinking, Jeffersonian journalist, James Callendar, and Nancy Winokoor dutifully delivers doubly as commentator and speechwriter, Peggy Noonan, and Texas Governor Ann Richards.

The play's most potent albeit painful piece comes from Labor Secretary Alexis Herman, portrayed honorably and exquisitely by Hannah Lum, whose childhood account of her father's attack by the KKK left me speechless, horrified and heartbroken.

While I question some of the liberty the playwright took when assembling this anthology of interviews that are all supposed to (in some way, presumably) reference the office of the president, the end product is ultimately a satisfying, thought-provoking lesson in current events, history and humanity.

"House Arrest" runs through September 23 at Theater 82 & Café, 82 Rolfe Square in Cranston. For information and tickets, call 401-490-9475 or visit www.epictheatreri.org

Chris is a voracious reader and unapologetic theater geek from Narragansett, Rhode Island.


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