Michael Roberts, Kelly Kapp, & Briana Clemerson in Brian Walker’s High Tide. Photo by Shaun Kenney.
By Brian David Walker
Directed by Natalie Fields
Review by Keith Waits
Entire contents copyright © 2016 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.
Finally, the First Annual Derby City Playwrights New Play Festival ends with a new play by the group’s founder. It has been awhile since Brian Walker premiered a new, full-length work in Louisville, and High Tide was worth the wait.
The simple premise: three siblings drive across the eastern United States to deliver their recently deceased mother’s most recent, illicitly obtained octopus to a location on the northeast coast. The road trip is an archetype in American storytelling, and Walker mines it for all it is worth in his tale of two sisters and a brother who cannot seem to stand each other, exploiting the claustrophobia of the car and the motel room as an incubator for human emotion.
Bo (Michael Roberts) and Triton (Briana Clemerson) are closest in temperament. Pointedly acerbic, they both like to cut loose by smoking weed, while Hurley (Kelly Kapp) is the disapproving scold who once called the police on them for getting high in her house. Each has received a private letter from their mother, played by Wendy Hames in a series of flashbacks from a speech at an aquarium, that contain specific instructions about the journey, but each sibling holds back the information in their letter. It is a sign of a crucial lack of trust and a seemingly unavoidable friction that are the spark plugs for Walker’s fierce and funny dialogue. A play that consists of so much argument could exhaust the audience’s patience quickly but the interactions are sharp and insightful, and Walker does not pander with happy endings, instead building assuredly towards understanding and change for these characters that feels very satisfying.
The writing is so good, but the three actors also play the hell out of this thing, and are perfectly cast for the sibling dynamic required. Michael Roberts and Briana Clemerson realize the bond of their two characters so fully as to make us empathize with the alienation felt by Kelly Kapp’s straight-laced outsider sister. Family can get under your skin in ways that others cannot, and the bond is difficult to completely sever whatever the grudge, all of which comes to life beautifully in the hands of these three. Wendy Hames makes the most of her scenes at a rostrum, which are designed to distract from scene changes but also fill in the background on why she has a stolen/rescued octopus.
I don’t know if the octopus is a symbol or metaphor for something; I think the particular choice is to provide a note of quirk in what is essentially a device. I suppose it represents the mother; a spectral weight hanging around their necks made manifest in a cephalopod mollusk.
The one time the play felt off kilter is that it seems to end twice. A beautiful, touching, and slightly absurd scene feels like the close of things, and on opening night the audience applauded enthusiastically when the lights went out immediately afterward, so resolute was the moment. But then the lights came up for one more brief exchange that, while worthwhile, felt anticlimactic. The “first ending ” felt right, and the thread the final scene ties up would seem better placed earlier, so that it somehow proceeds the grace note of the scene before it.
The intention of Derby City Playwrights is to develop new voices and support nascent playwrights to realize full-length material. But I am grateful that this inaugural festival also has brought us such an impressive new play from Mr. Walker, who is neither a new or nascent voice, for it has been far too long.
As for the Festival, it can only be counted a triumph. There is good range in the work: something for everyone, and all of them would easily justify a committed two-week run of their own. And this group is actually just a representative sample from a collective that has numbered more than a dozen writers in its first two years. For the next two weeks, you can see a crop of plays that fulfill the promise of Brian Walker’s vision and then some.
July 10 @ 8:00pm
July 16 @ 9:30pm
July 22 @ 7:30pm
Part of the First Annual Derby City Playwrights Festival
Advanced Tickets: $18 / At the door: $20
Derby City Playwrights
The Bard’s Town
1801 Bardstown Road
Louisville, KY 40205
Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of PUBLIC on WXOX-FM 97.1/ 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.