Godot's Country

The first act of this Godot contains a few too many long pauses. And ultimately, Beckett works best in a smaller, more intimate setting than the Playhouse's 1100-seat mainstage theater. Yet, while this production will not go down in history as the play's definitive version, its wit and intelligence should delight those with a taste for Beckett's cerebral gymnastics.

Far less decipherable than Waiting for Godot is Kevin Heelan's 1994 The Hope Zone, making its South Florida debut at Hollywood Boulevard Theatre in Hollywood after a run at Circle Rep in New York City. To his credit, Heelan attempts to tackle the prickly subject of addiction by paralleling the private world of struggling drug users and drinkers with the supportive haven of 12-step-program meetings. Unfortunately, he packs enough melodrama into his convoluted narrative to supply your favorite soap opera with a year's worth of story lines.

In a small hotel left to her in a divorce settlement, Countess (just a name, apparently, and not a title) has set up a recovery facility for alcoholics. There she ministers to a flock of disaffected outcasts who, like herself, struggle with shaky sobriety and low self-esteem. These include the runaway wife of a philandering senator, a grease monkey versed in the healing art of snake handling, and a former cop turned cook who runs the snack bar and sleeps with Countess (Ellen Simmons). Into this menagerie walks Countess's daughter Maureen (portrayed by Susan Vanech, Simmons's real-life daughter). An alcoholic intravenous drug-using single mother who shoplifts, Maureen wants to hand over her son to Countess for safekeeping. Nix to that. Countess wants Maureen to attend AA meetings and go straight. Maureen screws up. Accusations fly. It seems Countess once had her own son who, the script intimates, died as a result of his mother's drunken neglect. Threats, a fistfight, and writhing on the floor ensue. Meanwhile, Countess's lover decides to leave her. But she's too busy trying to save Maureen with tough love to care. When that doesn't work, she drinks Maureen's blood in order to save her. . . .

Don't ask.
Okay, okay. So playwrights such as Tennessee Williams and Eugene O'Neill were melodrama queens. But their plots soared through poetic language. In contrast, Heelan mires this work in an almost incomprehensible patois of tortured syntax, preposterous phrases, and self-help psychobabble. The actors do not stand a chance of connecting with the characters they play or with each other because their mouths are so full of the gravel that passes for authentic speech. Try negotiating these lines:

"The weather said there's a whole new freezingness coming in."
"In consequence of that tongue of his he made an idiot of me."
"The minutes ran out on me with her."
"Call me for a 12-step."

Somehow, Heelan has garnered a reputation for giving voice to characters who might not otherwise have a chance to speak (I've never seen his other plays). For example, 1986's Distant Fires explores racism on a construction site, and 1979's Split Decision tells the story of a once great black prizefighter trying to get out of the sport in one piece. And according to the play's program notes, the playwright has been commissioned to adapt Common Ground, J. Anthony Lukas's book about the school busing crisis in Boston in the Seventies, for the stage in Los Angeles. But for me, the writing in The Hope Zone provides no basis for such a reputation.

Stage Whispers
As any mother of a young child will tell you through the haze of her habitual exhaustion, finding time for professional work while raising a kid requires creative scheduling. Actors Stephanie Heller Norman and Elena Wohl and playwright Susan Westfall, all moms with kids under age three, believe they've found the perfect solution for pursuing their professional passions. They've teamed up to create City Theatre, a new company that will produce Summer Shorts, a three-week festival of twelve one-act plays. Featuring all new works, each of which will be ten minutes long or less, Summer Shorts will premiere from June 21 through July 7 at the University of Miami's newly renovated Jerry Herman Ring Theatre.

"The idea of doing something that's short and sweet fits with the working-mother time schedule," laughs Westfall. But the partners initiated the project for other reasons, as well. "South Florida has never done a festival of shorts before," Westfall points out, citing a tradition of such programs in theaters around the U.S., from the Met in L.A. to Woolly Mammoth in Washington, D.C., to Ensemble Studio Theatre in New York. "We also want to do something lively, entertaining, accessible, and affordable in the summer. We literally want people to come to the theater in their shorts. And we want to showcase a lot of talent in one place. The idea is to put five or six pieces up [each night] with fifteen actors, and generate a lot of energy."

The producers issued a call for new scripts to local and national writers. Westfall concedes that the company has received more responses from outside Miami than from writers in their own back yard. "The literary manager at [Actors' Theatre of] Louisville has been sending us things or making recommendations," Westfall notes. "We have pieces from [playwrights] Jeffrey Sweet and David Ives. But we would like to see local representation. If there are writers out there who have ten-minute scripts, submit them to us. We're interested in bilingual material, African-American writers. We're looking for good short plays that are going to be fully produced."

Send scripts, no more than fifteen pages long, to 1450 S. Bayshore Dr., suite 811, Miami, FL 33131, by April 15. For more information, call 446-9289.

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