Director Keith McGill in rehearsal with JP Lebangood & Zoë Peterson. Photo: Derby City Playwrights.
By Liz Fentress
Directed by Keith McGill
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents are copyright © 2019 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Theatre always begins as a mystery. Neutral Positions begins with three scenes that seem unrelated; disparate episodes whose relationship to each other eventually becomes evident. But for a tantalizing few minutes, we don’t know. Our mind is working. We are thinking actively in hopes of finding the connections. The marketing has clued us in that there is a Theme, and it’s a big one: the Death Penalty. So what does a broadly comic scene of a sixth-grade acting class have to do with that? How will the scene of two women, friends since childhood, preparing for a wedding, tie into state execution?
Actually, the third scene of two bank robbers fleeing the scene after shooting a bank teller doesn’t require much of a leap to reach the central idea of the play, but it also only reinforces the questions we have about the first two scenes. All of which is to say that as a writer, Liz Fentress believes in the virtue of a slow and careful build. She easily engages the audience with the comedy of kids misbehaving in class, and the mundane but identifiable conversation between two lifelong friends, building a context for the ordinary lives affected by the weight of social constructions.
Arthur is the sixth-grade teacher (Nicolas Hulstine understudied by director Keith McGill on opening night) dealing with one profoundly isolated student, Staysha (Zoë Peterson) while he prepares to marry Annie (Abigail Miskowiec) in a ceremony to be officiated by her friend Murt (Anna Wooley). The two bank robbers are Jake (Robert Thompson) and Tommy (JP Lebangood).
Even with director McGill stepping in at the last minute, this was a tight ensemble, and Fentress is equitable with the characters so that no one performance dominates. Each person in the story is given a point of view with enough foundation so that nobody ever is allowed to be merely a mouthpiece for a position. Positions arise, but that development is mostly organic, a happy result of that slow build. Fentress’ narrative unfolds so that the audience can absorb and consider its impact along the way.
Without revealing where that narrative finishes, I did feel that Fentress fell prey to the temptations of tidiness and coincidence in fashioning her climax; always easier to enter a story than it is to leave it with no loose ends. But she does manage an “issue” play without didactic speeches. One of her strengths is dialogue, so the opinions flow from sense and reason more than agenda.
Flow is harder to come by in the staging, which suffers a bit from some unwieldy scenic transitions. The lighting attempts some effects that struggle with the limited resources available but underscore the spare and stripped-down aesthetic of the production.
While elected officials and pundits debate issues of life and death in abstract terms for the self-serving purposes of political expediency, Neutral Positions powerfully reminds us that real people live out the consequences and that those consequences may force us to reexamine our own commitment to our most cherished ideals and principals. It is what theatre should do.
July 13 @ 8:00pm
July 21 @ 5:30pm
July 26 @ 7:30pm
Part of the 2nd Derby City Playwrights New Play Festival
For a full schedule of all seven plays, visit: derbycityplaywrights.org
Advanced Tickets: $18 / At the door: $20
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.